I had to get a new passport this year. The old one, with the extra pages, filled with stamps and visas that signify many wonderful memories was due to expire. The new one, my fifth passport with the seal of the good ole USA on the front, has a photo that perhaps confirms Erma Bombeck’s old dictum that it’s time to go home when you start to look like your passport photo. My new passport also reminded me that over the years I have always been proud (admittedly in varying degrees) to get out my passport in the documents control lines of different countries. That was then; this, as they say, is now.
When the immigration officer at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport opened my new passport and gave me that scrutinizing glance I had a twinge of embarrassment. It was not the photo—I no longer look like a terrorist they way I did, with my dark hair and beard and swarthy looks, in my early passports—it was that I was from what is now one of the most despised countries in the world. Most people are able to make a distinction between the citizens of a country and its government; but I prefer that they don’t have to make that distinction with regard to my country. I prefer not feeling like the kid with the father who shows up drunk at his Little League game shouting obscenities at the players and picking fights with the coaches.
I don’t know what that cold look by the immigration officer meant by that glance, but this time I knew what it could have meant .
Then there was the young Aussie couple that approached me in Pacific Coffee, where I feed my caffeine addiction and scribble in my notebooks. They had just arrived in Hong Kong for the first time and were having trouble navigating. After I assisted them they asked if I lived in Hong Kong. I fudged. I said “yes.” Technically, I am; I’m here for a month in a flat, not a hotel, I shop and cook, and I am not a tourist. I avoided saying that word that now catches in my throat—American. This is worse than that one trip, back in the Reagan years, when I put Canadian flag stickers on my luggage. Much worse.
I wonder, when people see my passport photo if they superimpose the snarling, deceitful faces of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, the liars and cronies of war profiteers, whose unjust, foolish and failed war has brought us so low in the hearts and minds of the rest of the world. I wonder if my passport evokes images for them of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, the Guantanamo gulag, the unnumbered bodies of innocent men women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder if they have forgotten, or had blotted out by America’s arrogant, preemptive war, the sympathy they felt for us over 9-11. I wonder when they see my passport if those with long enough memories remember the sacrifices American armed forces made in the World Wars. Or, do they think that we have gone from making the world safe for democracy to make the world America’s petrol pump.
Guns and Bibles
And I wonder, when they look at my new passport, if they think “Christian,” maybe “Christian fundamentalist-evangelical.” The predominant religion of America has become an embarrassment, too, as its leaders have curried favor from sanctimonious blowhards who call down the wrath of God on anyone, or any nation, that does not fit their narrow-minded (and paradoxically un -Christian) cosmology. America’s president has the hubris to publicly declare that his God has all but ordained him as the messiah of a new world order, as the gun-toting savior of the world from the scourges of Islam. Here in Hong Kong teams of America’s white-shirted Mormon missionaries prowl the streets of the city and the New Territories looking for souls to snatch, who have no idea themselves that they, like most missionaries, are merely the pompous, prattling vanguard of economic imperialists.
Guns and Bibles and “Democracy”
The there is the pathetic irony of the Bush administrations trumpeting of democracy, democracy American-style, as the hope of the future. Does my passport evoke sneers at the hypocrisy of “democracy” as the public relations slogan for the enforcement of American satrapies, American client states, for pumping crude into American Hummers and SUVs? Do they laugh up their sleeves at the glorification of American democracy by a man, who, more than unable to define the word, is the product of a stolen election, who has perverted the political process for the gain of his friends and supporters, who has disclaimed to nearly every piece of legislation passed by Congress, who has initiated Patriot Acts that are oxymoronic, who countenances torture of prisoners, spying on his own people, and uses fear as the prime mechanism for both support and intimidation. All that’s missing are those nifty Gestapo uniforms.
I used to be proud of my passport because we Americans were responsible for so much that benefited the world. Sure, we have always been out to make a buck, but we have advanced science, technology and medicine, led in education, promoted human rights. Even though we have been stingy in foreign aid we have been quick to come to the aid of those in distress. American NGOs have earned us many friends in may nations. Even putting aside all the usual hype and blather that we are “number 1” in this and that and “the greatest nation on the face of the earth” and the usual self-aggrandizement and promotion, we have been a leader and a beacon for those “yearning to breathe free.” Now, former immigrants and their progeny are being told that every immigrant might be a terrorist or a drug mule.
Now, much of America’s good reputation has been smeared, much good will has been squandered because an unenlightened, self-interested, arrogant leadership have paradoxically become accomplices of they very forces they claim as our enemies. They have seen the political advantage of the fear that Al Qaeda has sown in 9-11; they have seized that fear and evoked it like a bogeyman on a terrorized electorate that needs to be kept terrorized . They have created an idolatry for a president who scorns depthful analysis, punishes those who dare to go off message, finds scapegoats for his failures, takes the quick decision and “stays the course” at any cost. Rather that inquire honestly and earnestly into America’s role in the world, past, present and future, it has adopted a brutish, clumsy, bullying posture of preemptive aggression and “nation [re]building.” They have not looked for motivation for heinous acts against us beyond the whiney refrain of “Why do they hate us, we’re so wonderful.” Is it any wonder the world was “shocked and awed”—they have seen a great nation betray itself.
Is it any wonder, then, that I am so tentative and guarded when I have to tender my new passport. I feel like saying, “Don’t blame me, please, I’m the guy in that old passport, the American you used to smile at, give a thumbs up and say ‘America, Cleen -tone, America, Cleen-tone’.” Those were the good old days. No wonder the guy in my old passport picture looks happier.
©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.12.2006)