Updating from work on my lunch break.. I really should have written this earlier in the day.
Dear Mr. President,
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Today being January 4th, and the type of day that requires me to type this up quickly during my lunch break, I am going to write about my favorite constitutional amendment, the 4th. Don’t get me wrong- I think the 1st is the most important- but the 4th is my favorite, (and not just because it features so prominently in Jay-Z’s 99 problems).
While returning from my trip to Palestine in the summer of 2008, I was flying out of the Tel Aviv airport. I’d already had an amazing trip- punctuated of course by run-ins with the IDF at checkpoints and while hiking, though these encounters had been relatively easy for me, as an American. Once in the airport, however, I was on my own and had no idea what to expect. While I’d entered the country with ease, my companions had each been detained, interrogated, searched and grudgingly allowed entrance. During our hike, Palestinian Arabs had to use separate lines through checkpoints, and the IDF soldiers stopping us to check ID often tried to “sort” us, (“Arabs on one side, every one else on the other.”) Our group began as strangers but became fast friends and our response quickly became “We are all Palestinians. You cannot separate us.” Once in the airport I was instructed by my guides to tell any one who asked that I’d spent the whole trip in Jerusalem, and that any items I had purchased (olivewood carvings, jewelry, flags, t-shirts, etc) were also from Jerusalem. I did so, but became uncomfortable lying during a more in-depth search of my belongings.
The woman shouting questions at me wanted to know who I’d been with, their names, their professions, where we had gone and if I had been “alone with any Arabs.” She seemed to think me horribly naïve, and kept insisting that I had been in danger. “Don’t you know what they do to women?” “How do you know they did not try to give you a bomb?” This whole process, while mildly offensive, was still a bit amusing to me, as my backpack was full of the clothes I’d been wearing for 2 weeks of hiking in the summer heat.
I’d heard stories about a British traveler who, growing weary of the endless questions he’d encounter on his trips through Tel-Aviv, would start to remove his clothing at the first question. I’d had a professor experience a truly invasive search at the Allenby bridge crossing, and so I was prepared by these anecdotes that a more invasive search was not impossible. I was dressed modestly, again, on the advice of the trip organizers, but at one point my jacket slipped down to reveal a tattoo I have in Arabic. This caught the attention of one of the security offices and I was ordered to remove my jacket, read the tattoo and explain what it meant. She said “Why would you get that language tattooed on your body?” I was then asked to proceed to a back room for a “metal detector test”, (though I did not encounter a metal detector but instead was asked to remove my clothing,) and frisked. The girl conducting the search seemed mildly embarrassed about the ordeal and apologized to me several times before checking between my toes and in my hair. I passed this strange test and the girl led me through security and escorted me to my gate, even intervening with her supervisor to allow me to keep my asthma inhaler in my carry-on.
After an uneventful day in Prague, I made it to customs at JFK. The man looked at my passport, looked at my tattoo, and said “Welcome to New York.” In that moment, sir, I loved my country more than I had the rest of my years. Knowing that I could have a tattoo of anything and not be interrogated about it, knowing that I could have my belongings kept private unless there was reasonable cause for suspicion, knowing that my constitution protected me in this way made me incredibly grateful. I’m sorry that so many of us have to experience a loss of our freedom to appreciate what we have.
This brings to mind the tightened security and more elaborate searches faced by many Americans since the attempted attack. While I am genuinely happy to have my belongings searched before bringing them aboard a flight- I have no wish to die in an airplane and would cede even my beloved 4th amendment rights, to some degree, for this safety- I wish there were ways to ensure that these measures were being conducted in a such a way as to respect the individuals being searched. I hope that passengers are not being profiled by their race, religion or personal appearance. We have to find a way to balance personal safety with personal freedom and the inevitable mistakes along the way will need to minimized, admitted to and apologized for. I only hope that we do not allow fear to shape our country into something unrecognizable.