The Economy of Terror

By Mike / On / In Personal

“You’ve made it very clear that you never want to return to the United States,” my friend said to me. I was surprised to hear that, because I certainly never meant to give that impression, but as he pointed out, sometimes what people hear the loudest are the things you do not say.

Yes, I quietly doubled my rates for working within the US. No, I didn’t explain why. Frankly I am terrified to talk about it, but now I’m afraid that by not talking about it I’ve added a wrong impression to the pile of wrong impressions about what I am doing here, and how I feel about the US.

You have to understand that I am not trying to make a statement. I’m just trying to get better at business. I’ve come to understand that when you assume risk, you should be compensated. It’s risky to give people honest feedback about their apps, which is why I require payment for that. Similarly, it has become risky to enter the United States, so I require compensation for that as well.

The last time I went to the US was last June, for WWDC. My flight required changing planes in Detroit, so I went through customs and immigration there. I went looking for a missing suitcase, and found it sitting like a trap in the middle of the floor. When I approached it, I was apprehended by law enforcement, denied a request to inform my partner I was being detained, then put in a cell, questioned, and aggressively strip-searched.

I was left feeling completely dehumanized, but what terrified me most was not how they violated me, but why. By their own admission, it wasn’t that they thought I might be smuggling something, but that they hoped I might have forgotten something. “Maybe you left a bud in a jacket pocket, or half a joint in your jeans.” That, to me, is a terrifying redefinition of the rules.

I have always believed that the intent of law enforcement was to root out criminal behavior, not to find excuses to reclassify good people as criminals. I don’t want to participate in a system that looks to bust people not for poor judgment, but for obvious mistakes. I don’t want to subject myself to arbitrary power, to unreasonable search and seizure, or to entrapment.

“I know you’re an engineer. Well, so am I.” the customs officer growled menacingly. They read every stamp in my passport like an indictment. They seemed to imply that the system is unnerved by intelligence, by thinking, by any attempt to improve your mind or expand your horizons. They seemed to find dedicating myself to learning about the world suspicious, even threatening.

I don’t like being afraid to enter my own country. I don’t like being terrified to talk about my experiences, for fear of retribution. I don’t like living in a world where the government can and will use their power to drive people to destroy themselves, where the very act of being investigated can be an extrajudicial death sentence.

I cannot travel without terror, because I cannot assume that they will not take me, and if they do, I cannot say when they will let me go. I cannot say that I will never make the mistake they need to bring about my downfall, despite my best intentions. I cannot deny that there is risk in crossing that border, in entering that country, despite being its citizen.

Where I cannot eliminate risk, I must ameliorate it with compensation. I don’t know what else I can do.