• A Civics Lesson from America’s Airports, and the TSA

    May 8, 2014 // 15 Comments »

    It is unfortunate that so many foreigner visitors are unfamiliar with our freedoms. The tree of liberty needs to be refreshed from time to time with the residual remains of patriots, so I went to the airport for a civics lesson alongside them.

    I am sure that having flown out of sleek, modern facilities in Asia linked to nearby cities by fast, convenient public transportation, the tourists were unprepared for what it means to be truly free. The advertisements now included in the plastic security bins drove home the American government works for the people, not corporations. Still, many foreigners seemed confused as to why they had to semi-disrobe to board a plane.

    Was removing shoes at the airport some sort of American custom? Even the Japanese, who are shoe-removing fetishists, seemed unsure about wearing only socks to tread upon a filthy public floor. Then came off belts, jackets, jewelry and stuff in pockets. The foreigners, some from Commie Red China where the government controls their every action, were worried pants might be next, but quickly found out we Americans would never bow to a bully government like they had to do at home. We instead all waited in long, slow lines for our chance to appear before a petty government official with blind power over us.

    One thing that distinguishes our international airports from those in many other third world countries is the near-exclusive use of English. Few Americans appreciate the efforts we go to as a nation to provide these gratis tutorial sessions. A curious fact is that American airport workers seem to believe that anyone can speak English if it is blasted at them loud enough and s-l-o-w enough. Idiomatic phrases, such as “ I SAID, liquids in a baggie, 3:1, ya’all, c’mon, people are waiting behind you” are also taught. American passengers often helped out by advising foreign visitors of how to manhandle their laptops, tear open wrapped gifts, disassemble iPods, pour out big bottles of perfumes and bottled water foolishly purchased earlier in the airport and the like.

    As part of America’s commitment to equal treatment for all, I was somehow again selected for random additional screening. It was a good thing, as it meant at least I was still not on the no-fly list. The random part started when the helpful TSA employee scribbled something on my boarding pass and would not tell me what it meant. See, even though I am an American, I too could be treated with scorn. The foreigners, all of whom I could see did not get chosen by Das Selection, seemed impressed. In what other country could the son of a simple tradesman be singled out to represent what is now our America to the world?

    My random extra screening included removing a Chapstick from my pants pocket, and opening it in front of the TSA person as proof it was not terrorist balm meant to moisten one’s lips before shouting “Allah hu Akbar!” Like with the foreigners, the TSA gent spoke English loudly to me, as if to reaffirm loudly we are all equal here in America. He also “asked” that I remove and open my wallet in case it included a very thin gun. In some countries that might be seen as a sleazy request for a bribe, but here we all understood it was just bullying by a public servant. I think when Mr. TSA Employee of the Month saw I had a major credit card was when he knew I was “A-OK.” But not before swabbing my hands for explosives. The Chinese tourists watching all this no doubt remembered the great American cowboy movies they had seen, where men settled things with violence, and smiled seeing how far we had come. As a culture that revers its elders, the Chinese also noted how, after discovering a typo in the name on a boarding pass, TSA sent an elderly woman back to the airline counter for a new one even though she said that would cause her to miss her flight. Not all governments around the world understand they are there to serve the people, not themselves.

    Overall, as I reassembled myself alongside the many visitors sweating and yammering in foreign tongues about how much freedom we Americans enjoy, I could not help but feel proud. Travel and tourism builds bridges, and lets visitors see a people for what they really are. As those modern-day explorers returned to their repressive, petty and inefficient governments at home, I knew that they had at least once, briefly but certainly memorably, breathed free air alongside me.

    BONUS: The foreign visitors no doubt also enjoyed the airport’s retro-touches, which evoked the Golden Age of air travel of the 1950s and 1960s. The lack of WiFi, just like when their parents first visited America, the two electrical outlets serving an entire wing of the airport, the toilets which appear to have not been cleaned since 1950 and the “Welcome Home Troops” signs reminiscent of those displayed for soldiers coming home from the Korean, Vietnam and other wars, all harken back to simpler times.



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    Iraq-Iran Economic Relations Just Fine, Thanks

    June 28, 2011 // Comments Off on Iraq-Iran Economic Relations Just Fine, Thanks

    So who was the real winner of the US-Iraq War of 2003? Hmmm… US loses 4466 soldiers, drops a couple of trillion dollars for little-to-no return, so maybe not us. Iraq gets its civil society shredded and undergoes eight years of sectarian civil war, sees over 100,000 killed and is home now to a bustling al Qaeda franchise… nope. Iran sits on its hands while the US hacks away at its two major enemies, Saddam and the Taliban, while burning itself out economically? Yep, gotta go with Iran as the winner.

    Now, in addition to winning our war strategically, it is looking good for Iran economically as well, at least vis-a-vis Iraq.

    While Iraq flounders trying to gin up its oil industry, and Reuters headlines a story Iraq’s Moribund Manufacturing Sector Appeals for Help, it is good to know that economic relations between Iraq and former enemy Iran are, well, peachy.

    The Tehran Times lets us know that Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi will visit Iraq on July 6 in order to take part in the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. The newspaper estimated the two countries’ current annual trade value at $4-5 billion.

    Better yet, Iran just agreed to supply 9400 barrels of gasoil a day to Iraq for power generation. Ironic as Iraq sits atop one of the largest reserves of petroleum in the world, just out of reach apparently.

    Politically, things are also smooth as butta. Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said on Wednesday that Iran and Iraq would sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said, highly assessing the “assistance, granted by Iran to the Iraqi people.”

    But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, the real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism, Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange, albeit mostly one-way.

    Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, preventing Iraqi travel agencies from rendering a similar service. The Iranian companies are associated with hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to a religious site Mashhad, Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.

    Business is booming. Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to dramatically ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.

    Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.

    We saw a little slice of this during our own time in Iraq. Peter’s PRT covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.

    Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital (pictured above). Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the US invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select Saddam friends.

    The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.

    On routine patrols through the area, Peter’s PRT would frequently see giant tour buses, with Iranian license plates and markings, hauling tourists around the city.

    The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.”

    Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom.


    Read more about the US-Iran proxy war now underway in Iraq…




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