Five-Minute Glass: What Our Government Sees When It Looks Out the Window

Thursday, 20 March 2014 15:38 By DH Garrett, Truthout | Op-Ed
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American flag behind a chain link fence.American flag behind a chain link fence. (Image: via Shutterstock)

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

-C.P Cavafy


They call it five-minute glass, because that is the amount of time it is supposed to take for someone standing on the other side firing an AK-47 to finally break through. The five minutes thus afforded presumably gives us enough time to slip out the back or into our safe room or to call in the Marines or all of the above. What the US government - and we, its citizens, by our acquiescence - has tried to do since 9/11 is install the equivalent of five-minute glass around everyone and everything, even down to and including our private conversations. It is the perfectly reasonable action of fear-driven individuals - and moreover, in terms of the wasteful and inept way in which this policy of paranoia has been implemented - of the individuals and companies who stand to profit from all the bells and whistles required by the national - "Homeland Insecurity" - surveillance state thus created. The other approach to the world the United States could have taken, the approach of sympathy, empathy, compassion and that most demonic to some of D words, diplomacy. Can anyone doubt that the trillion or so dollars spent on war in Afghanistan might have achieved something worthy of the "investment" - something besides a failed, corrupt, narco-state and a reinvigorated Taliban - if we had spent that money on making the lives of Afghan children a little better? 

Let me start with my "ingress" to working for the government - visa adjudication - and the insight it provided into how otherwise normal Americans are trained to stop being human, and instead are messaged and massaged into heartlessly profiling the world outside our protected zones. 

Part 1: The "Little" Picture: Immigration, Dimigration and Damnigration

Just as US drug policy and its failed "War on Drugs" is in good part responsible for creating the wealthy cartels and the violence they wield, so US immigration policy is in large part responsible for creating the nether-world of trafficking in people and the wealthy criminals who benefit from it.

I was once in my own small way a defender of our country. I stood at the border, a gatekeeper for who could come in and who would have to remain in the outer darkness. As a foreign service officer, I spent a long time at the window - the visa window - adjudicating supplicants. It was, I suppose, like being God. We demanded absolute truth and had the ability to make absolute, life-changing decisions. To some, we offered the possibility of a trip to heaven - the USA - while some slinked away, their fraudulent documents having been detected. And others went away in anger and disgust at not having been believed. For though we had godlike power, we really couldn't see any better into someone's heart and mind than the average Joe. We could ask whatever question we wanted, and an answer - an easily believable answer - had to be forthcoming, without any ifs ands buts or nervous facial ticks ("So you're 25 and you claim to be in love with a 70-year-old man. Tell me what is his favorite position?"). We could demand any proof we desired (bring me the sheets of that consummation, unwashed and we may also require a DNA analysis, the cost of which you are responsible for). Oh, we learned to detect the more obvious tricks from experience, but that experience for many (if not most) officers hardened their hearts into a perpetual sneer of distrust: They'd been burned once or twice, and after that it was no more Mister or Miz Nice Diplomat. 

If you had money, you had a better chance of getting a visa, but pity the poor applicant in an ill-fitting suit or the applicant who had a family member already in the United States who had gotten there by claiming asylum or "adjusting status" (in other words, they entered the US on a tourist visa then legally applied to stay as either a student or in a legal employment status). This was more often than not the coup de grace for a swift refusal. You see, the United States does preach the importance of family reunification, but only for families that have gone the orthodox route or have enough money ($1 million) to obtain an E visa - or enough money or desperation to hire a "coyote" of one stripe or another. Just as US drug policy and its failed "War on Drugs" is in good part responsible for creating the wealthy cartels and the violence they wield, so US immigration policy is in large part responsible for creating the nether-world of trafficking in people and the wealthy criminals who benefit from it.

Before I joined the foreign service, visa adjudication was the job I least looked forward to. Because I loved languages and had traveled widely and lived overseas for many years, many of my friends were from other countries. A significant number of them had horror stories to tell of their own visa interviews. Some of the women had been sexually propositioned. Several of the applicants from poor countries had had to apply several times before finding an officer they could convince of their bona fides. Many told of how arrogant, disdainful, imperiously cold the officer was, even if they did get their visa. And yet, given that this was the entry-level position du jour for new diplomats, here I was at the consular window of a US embassy in a small Asian country, granted the power to allow - or not - someone to visit or study or move to the US of A. My mentor called it the foreign service's equivalent of hazing: It was unpleasant, but it gave the Department of State a way of sizing up your "cojones" and making sure you had the right not-too-much-empathy-for-outsiders stuff.

My training in this magisterial art had consisted of being fire-hosed with US immigration law for a few weeks, combined with the occasional practice interview at a mock window. The proctors kept telling me that I "over-personalized" my interviews, meaning I smiled and tried to engage the interviewee as one human being to another. But the State Department didn't want customer service skills. They wanted someone who asked three or four questions at the very most and on that basis was able to make a decision in less than two minutes about whether or not "214(b)" was overcome (214(b) is the front line, the thin line, the Maginot line that keeps the United States from being flooded with illegal immigrants, at least in the minds of most of the officers at the window; 214(b) states, "Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for admission, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant status." It is, in other words, a system of justice that begins with the presumption of guilt. 

Armed with this prescription for distrust, and confirmed in their prejudices by the occasional applicant who was clearly fraudulent (the five-star hotel "owner" with a hilariously misspelled letter of self-introduction on stolen stationary, the would-be graduate student with a purchased master's degree in physics who couldn't explain the second law of thermodynamics, the Buddhist "priest" who knew only two of the Four Noble Truths, etc.). I saw officers sometimes refuse nine out of 10 applicants, including some who were world-famous (thus requiring an apology from the ambassador in the local newspaper). There were many days when the officers raced each other to see who could refuse the most applicants (volume helped their career chances); on other days, they played Non Immigrant Visa Bingo (the "bingo" card had squares like ship crewman visa, fake monk applicant, fake student documents, medical emergency). Our consul general (himself rumored to be skating on the tit-for-tat side of sexual indiscretion, or as he so eloquently put it, "You can sleep with a woman here for the price of a Coke.") explained it helped to pass the time and reduce the stress on the officers. I thought about the stress on the applicants who were each paying the equivalent of that country's yearly average wage for the opportunity to be made sport of. 

Officers were afraid to disagree publicly with the perceived wisdom of their superiors lest their career careen out the gilded door.

I do not mean to demonize the officers. It is a tough job. Often the hours are long and the pressure is immense. I've seen officers on the line snap, and begin pounding the glass, yelling, "You're a liar, you're a liar." I've seen others call the embassy guards to drag a poor applicant away for little more than asking "But why? You're wrong. Let me explain." Officers in general do not like to be interrupted in their questioning, and once they've made a decision, it's final: No pleading, explaining or, especially, begging is allowed. The dramas that unfold at the Visa Window deserve a sitcom or two. And of course the applicants have their own way of getting revenge. Some of the officers were so unpopular in-country for their haughty ways that they avoided going out for fear of being ridiculed and spat upon. One particularly disgruntled applicant literally took a crap at the window to express his displeasure at being refused. In many countries, there are web sites and chat rooms in which the consular officers are given nicknames and their peccadillos analyzed in (imagined) detail. 

The gossip on the street was that male officers were easier, and indeed, every once in a while, an officer would slink back from the visa window with a sheepish smile on his face and mutter to the other male officers "Gene Pool Visa." For, yes, a particularly beautiful woman at the window in a particularly fetching dress sometimes stirred an officer to his, er, core, to rise to the occasion and issue the, er, visa. My weakness was students, and I became known as the "Student Visa Guru" as students across the subcontinent would perform puja in hopes of getting my window (basically, if a student was accepted at a college and had enough money, I issued the visa). Other officers issued a visa to students only with straight A's or students going to prestigious schools or students who were studying something they thought was "practical" for their country. But pity the applicant who had a previous refusal. The thin grey line of future diplomats did not easily overturn the previous decision of a fellow officer, even if, of course, it was wrong. And so there were applicants caught in "previous refusal hell" with very little chance of getting out no matter what they did. 

Part 2: The "Big" Picture, A: Seeing Things That Are Not There, Not Seeing Things That Are There

What I saw that nervous morning when I first took my position at the visa window was a room full of smiling, hopeful human beings who still basically held the United States in high regard as a place, whose ideals and dreams were still aspired to. By the end of the day, though, more than half of them had had their illusions destroyed, not so much by the fact that an officer didn't find them qualified (economically) to visit the United States, but because of the arrogance if not rudeness of the officer they encountered. Wanting to ingratiate myself with the techno-geek servants of the Homeland Insecurity state and save my foundering career (my boss said I was "insubordinate" for issuing too many student visas and overturning demonstrably mistaken refusals), I suggested a system based on expert systems and neural networks. The idea was that if we were to determine our visa decisions basically on little more than a combination of stereotyping, racial profiling, personal prejudices, and how an officer was feeling on any given day (plus, yes, some experience) we might as well codify and objectify the system and give it the ability to learn and grow from the experiences of every officer combined with real feedback about what actually happened to the applicants. Better than that, of course, would have been a little sensitivity and customer-service training for our future "diplomats." But, hey, there were no careers or money to be made in being kind. 

The United States would preen and posture about an issue, while all along it did exactly the same at home or elsewhere in the poorly concealed semi-clandestine or simply-not-talked-about shadows.

Later, when no longer adjudicating visas - my failed attempt to be human in an almost inhuman situation over - I can tell you that what I saw more often than not in my years in the State Department in other roles was a continuation of the pattern I saw at the window: Officers were afraid to disagree publicly with the perceived wisdom of their superiors lest their career careen out the gilded door ("What do you mean you think our history of arming freedom fighters tends to come back to haunt us? Don't you believe in the struggle for democracy?"); officers agreeing with each other to maintain the esprit de corps ("Lemming to the left, please get back in line"); officers quickly learning there was an acceptable range of (narrow) ideas and to think outside of that box of jargon was to be, well, outside (Corporate rights, yeah! Workers' rights, nah, not so much). What I saw too often was not so much diplomacy as a strange hybrid of monoplomacy ("Basically we're here to help American corporations make money.") and schizoplomacy. The United States would preen and posture about an issue, while all along it did exactly the same at home or elsewhere in the poorly concealed semi-clandestine or simply-not-talked-about shadows. The Great God in DC would direct us to investigate and complain about our host country's prison conditions while all along the United States was amassing the largest (Go Corrections Corporation of America!) prison population in the world, often in horrific conditions. The Imperial Majesty in DC would send us out to plead for our host country to abjure the use of torture while we meanwhile merrily went our enhanced-interrogation-technique tortuous way (Go CIA/Blackwater/Xe or whatever you call yourself these days!). The City on a Hill in DC would exhort us to entreat our host country to obey international law, while all along it smashed, dashed and droned (go General Atomics!) its way past any semblance of respect for that most basic of premises, national sovereignty. We became champions of missile defense (go Raytheon!) while studiously mentioning not one word of the excellent analyses showing that it didn't work and anyway was easily and cheaply overcome. We were sent out into the world to share our knowledge and expertise on shale gas (Go Haliburton!) as a clean bridge to a green future, all along covering up the real science that showed it was more of a short gangplank to the shark-infested waters of climate chaos. We would lecture about the reality of climate change and the need for all to share responsibility for addressing it, all along salivating at the prospect of exporting more coal, tar sands oil, or natural gas (Go Koch brothers!). 

The State Department fills the minds of its officers with an equally pernicious mindset: that weapons sales equal peace, that US corporations' sales - no matter the product or its true impact on local populations - equals development and that the United States never ever apologizes or recognizes or accepts any responsibility for the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in its many failed attempts to reshape the world in its own un-self-reflective image.

Yes, we were sent out to save the world, knights in shining armor on white horses but with profoundly bare buttocks that everyone but we ourselves could see. And when I think of how training best prepared us to stop feeling and stop thinking and allowed us  -with a nice suit, a gold great-seal-of-the-United-States-embossed name card and a straight face - to spout what was, at best, well-manicured nonsense and, more likely, just poorly disguised hypocrisy, I came to the conclusion that the year or so at the visa window was the State Department's equivalent of violent video games in achieving the goal of removing substantial portions of the head and heart of its Foreign Service officers and replacing them instead with yes men and yes women all bolstered by the financial and societal sinecure that comes with a well-guarded, often quite palatial, house and many other frilly diplomatic perks. The Defense Department uses loyal officers pumped full of metadata stereotyping so that they are able to "see" that the grainy images on their computer consoles of wedding parties and children collecting firewood are in fact terrorists. The State Department fills the minds of its officers with an equally pernicious mindset: that weapons sales equal peace, that US corporations' sales - no matter the product or its true impact on local populations - equals development and that the United States never ever apologizes or recognizes or accepts any responsibility for the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in its many failed attempts to reshape the world in its own un-self-reflective image. 

Part 3: The "Big" Picture, B: First We'll Militarize the Mexican Border, and Then the Canadians Will Militarize Their Border Against Us

I, too - on too many occasions for me to be proud of - succumbed to the rampant group-think of lowly officers scrambling to get higher in the jostling career heap. I even went so far as to suggest in a dissent cable in 2009 that we create a Green Military Industrial Complex to combat climate change, not because I like the military-industrial complex (of which it may be charitably said "Never has so much been given to so few for so few junky weapons of so little worth and relevance") but because desperate times require desperate measures. And if the arch-enemies, the chief wastrels themselves could be brought on board, well, at least it might create momentum in the Congress they own, lock, stocks and (oil and gun) barrels.

But I think the day is fast approaching when the world, or much of the world, may seek to make us pay for our hubris, if not our sins. And I do not just mean the obvious eventuality of "blowback," I mean that as our fortunes tumble as a result of paying too little attention to getting our own house in order - addressing the cancerous levels of inequality, fixing our failing physical and educational infrastructure and both mitigating to alleviate and also adapting to a rapid Earth system phase change - that out of that manifest set of multiple weaknesses, when we can no longer dictate on our own terms and we have backed ourselves into a corner all by ourselves (oh us and perhaps Israel and the Japanese right wing as company), the world may seek to put the US on the other side of its own version of five-minute glass, with freedom of movement and freedom of cooperation and the freedom of the security of respect for law, not on our side, but out there on the other side. The world, for example, may seek to try US war criminals, because we clearly don't bother; the world may seek damages for the climate change destruction wreaked upon the poor through no fault of their own, and the world may seek some other form of global internet connectivity that isn't a Trojan horse for US corporate and National Insecurity Agency interests. Oh, wait, these things are happening already. 

And, no, addressing my old companions, I don't mean to suggest that the Department of State is a bastion of sycophancy and backstabbing only. There are many good people there with many good ideas. I fully recognize that in addition to the faults that any large old-fashioned organization/bureaucracy is heir to, it is also constrained by its mission of carrying out the decisions of the executive, even when they are bad, immoral or illegal, while at the same time it must curry favor with the purse-string holders of Congress, filled as that is with the rich and the neanderthalic and the rich neanderthalic. Nor were my own decisions at the window and elsewhere always right. I remember one young man who had a full scholarship to study for a master's of engineering at a US university. It was easy for me to give him his visa - but to this day I am haunted by that decision and by the hope and courage I saw shining in his face. A year or so later, his mother and sister were at my window applying for a visa to go to the US and cremate his body. He had worked off-campus during the summer - as he was allowed to do - at a gas station. The gas station was robbed, and the assailants had persuaded him to come out from behind the supposedly bulletproof glass. He had done so, and they had shot him dead. I couldn't face his family from behind my window with its five-minute glass. I went out into the waiting room to talk with them. I told them that I had been the one to issue the visa. It hurt, and it still hurts. But that is what we must do in the world. We have to get out from behind our walls, out from behind the five-minute glass, out from behind our facile preconceptions and feel again what is really happening. Feel again the pain and sorrow that we have too often caused or at least been ineptly complicit in. It's not going to feel good, at first, and it's not always going to be safe. But if we are going to rejoin the world, much less even hope to participate meaningfully in leading it, there is no other way. 

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of State or the US government. 

DH Garrett

Daniel H. Garrett is a former US Department of State foreign service officer and currently a senior associate at The Asia Institute. 

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