Back in the days when I worked internationally I often found myself lying awake at night in some precarious and lonely place, aware that the only thing connecting me to my world was a runway and an airline that still had permission to use it. The feeling that gripped my stomach in those moments was unsettling in the nebulous way that fear often manifests itself. It's an uncomfortable sensation I've come to know frequently even in what is supposed to be the safety of my American home.
That sense of disquiet came to me in a noticeable way when I read Dave Eggers' book Zeitoun, the true story of a Syrian-American man arrested without reason or explanation in New Orleans following the Katrina flood. Wrongfully accused of terrorist activity presumably because of religion, he spent a harrowing time in a secret jail before his family secured his release. Similarly, the film Rendition, which recounts the chilling story of an innocent Egyptian-American man suspected of terrorism, filled me with a horrific sense of what can go wrong -- even in a proudly democratic country.
Given recent revelations about the National Security Agency's invasions of privacy, including the unauthorized and illegal surveillance of Americans in the U.S. as reported by The Washington Post last month, that chill is again running up and down my spine. It is exacerbated by the fact that as a journalist I often visit websites that could be suspect. In the course of doing research I've explored child pornography, gun violence, Muslim leaders, sexual abuse, particular politicians, right-wing organizations and more. Now I wonder if my communications are being scrutinized and whether I will find myself prevented from traveling because I'm on a "no fly" list. Or worse.
I am furthered frightened because of a Netflix film I watched recently called American Violet. It's the true story of a black woman in Texas who found herself unjustly prosecuted in a large-scale drug case by a corrupt district attorney who along with her own attorney tried to coerce her into accepting a plea bargain rather than fighting the charges. Turns out, the false charges and plea bargain scam happens all the time where that woman lives.
Then came a lengthy article in The New Yorker Magazine called "Taken." It recounts what happens to Hispanics and Blacks in the Texas town of Tenaha, where under "civil forfeiture" Americans who haven't been charged with any wrongdoing can be stripped of their cars, cash and homes by the time it's all over simply because they have been considered suspect. It seems "cash for freedom deals" are "a point of pride for Tenaha." The same thing is happening elsewhere.
Texas is also the place where a number of women, stopped for traffic violations as minor as having a rear light out, have recently been subjected to roadside finger probes of their genitals by state police.
And it isn't only Texas that has me alarmed. In Kansas City a man named Robert Nelson was recently freed from prison after serving nearly thirty years for a rape he never committed. Sharon Snyder, the court clerk who helped Nelson obtain the necessary DNA evidence denied to him by the legal system, was fired for her role in his exoneration.
Granted, I'm not from Texas or Kansas or any of the states now legislating horrific laws that infringe upon individual liberties (think suppression of voting rights or violation of women's constitutional right to reproductive health decisions). And I'm not Black, Hispanic or poor. But what comes next? Jews, liberals, feminists, gays, people who simply disagree with you? All it takes for things to go seriously south for any one of us is one corrupt cop, one hostile judge, one powerful politician, one ignorant legislator, one false claim, one time being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So as the poet John Donne once noted, "Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."
I am ever conscious these days that the bell could easily toll for me. That's why the chill I felt long ago on those foreign tarmacs is with me still. It's why I look over my shoulder, metaphorically, more than I wish I had to. And it's why I won't be driving through Texas any time soon.