Observations from abroad, which is where this journalistic traveler has been for the past several weeks:
ITALY'S "CRAZY" INTERNET LAW
Before I was permitted to log on at internet points in San Gimignano and Firenze (Florence), I was required to present either my passport or driver's license, so it could be duplicated by the management.
A note taped to the cash register informed patrons that last year, as a response to terrorists communicating with each other over the internet, the Italian government passed a law requiring that anyone wanting to get on the Web at such an internet business must provide photo I.D. that will be duplicated and kept on file at the business until or if the police ask to see it.
Reluctantly, I handed over my passport, a copy was made of my photo and personal information, and I sat down to check my email.
In Florence, I asked the proprietor what was going on. "It's simply crazy," said the owner, whose near-perfect American-English came from studying in the U.S. for many years. "My back room is stuffed with thousands of these old duplicated pieces of paper, and I'm obliged to hang onto them forever. It places an undue burden on those of us who run internet points. What on earth do they think they're accomplishing?
"Any reasonably competent terrorist will find his way onto the internet despite this stupid law. Phony passports or driver's licenses, disguises, use of library terminals, wireless locations, whatever. This law was passed mainly to make the politicians look like they're actually doing something to protect us, when in fact nothing really has been accomplished except to inconvenience the public and those of us businesses that now have to become permanent paper repositories.
"Plus," he said, "it's just making it easier for the government, any government, to turn its citizens into compliant robots. Take off your shoes before you get on an airplane, take off your belt and let the X-ray machine examine it, I'll bet if they required everybody to strip behind a screen people eventually would get used to doing that, too. Freedom is being sliced away, piece by piece, and we all participate in it, by doing what they tell us. But I'm a businessman, what can I do? I have to comply. It's crazy."
We then got involved in a long and fascinating discussion about what was happening in Italy and what was happening in the U.S. around the "war on terrorism" question. Short sum-up: Italy under Berlusconi and the U.S. under Bush were using the "war on terrorism" as cover for their own far-right agendas. There are indeed bad guys out there that need to be caught, we both agreed, but this incompetency and battering-ram approach wasn't really the only way to go, and certainly not the best way.
THE LITTER ON HEATHROW'S CARPET
To get to Germany in the least expensive way for my address to Democrats Abroad in Munich (see the text of my talk here ( www.crisispapers.org/essays6w/democrats-abroad.htm ), I was routed through London's Heathrow Airport. I didn't understand why the cheapest tickets went through Heathrow until I was forced to endure the chaos of that airport's security system.
Several hundred in-transit passengers from various arriving flights were forced to stand in a mass traffic jam in a windowless corridor for 20 minutes, with no movement forward and with no indication of what was blocking our way. Finally, a security official, perhaps sensing something was wrong, peeked her head out from around the corner and spotted this mass of seething humanity. A few minutes later, those snaking-line mazes were set up and we began moving forward, or at least enjoyed the illusion that we were moving forward, zig-zagging our way towards somewhere.
The whole process took more than an hour-and-a-half, making many passengers miss their connecting flights. When the line finally got to the security inspection area, large signs announced what one could not bring on the aircraft, a holdover from the London scare several months ago about the possible use of liquid bombs. Young employees walked back and forth displaying boards affixed with samples of shampoos and toothpaste and water bottles and such. (Some non-English-speaking passengers actually thought the agents were offering to sell those items duty-free. Much fun.)
From that point on, the carpet became littered with toothpaste tubes and shampoo bottles and the like. I jettisoned my toothpaste into a bin but kept some medicinal ointments with me, figuring they might allow those 2-ounce tubes through, as they do now in the States. Alas, my backpack was flagged and I had to explain my possession of the forbidden items. The middle-aged inspector, who gave the impression that he knew he was enforcing non-sensical rules, sighed and made me a deal: "Give me the fungus cream," he said, "and you can take the antibiotic ointment with you." We smiled at the charade. I handed over my dangerous athlete's-foot cream, and off I went to make my connecting flight back to San Francisco.
The gentleman in front of me was not so lucky in his dealings and had a run-in with a hard-nosed young inspector, a stick-to-the-book kind of guy. After all the shouting, the passenger had to turn over several hundred dollars worth of medicinal ointments and pills, since they weren't in containers affixed with their authorized presciptions. He was steaming. Like me, he will never fly through Heathrow again.