It's always amusing to hear people say that the United States is "not
an empire." The substance of this "argument" (if we may so dignify such
a completely unfounded assertion) seems to be that America can't be an
empire because its agents don't swan around in white suits, pith helmets
and jodhpurs while exercising direct and open colonial rule over its
subjects. In other words, it doesn't look enough like vaguely remembered
movie scenes about the British Raj in its heyday.
The fact that the British Raj was only one particular manifestation which imperial rule has taken down through the millennia cuts no ice in our Age of Amnesia, of course. "We seen that movie one time and we know dang well what empires look like, and what we got now don't look like that, so there." But even if one's idea of empire is limited in this fashion, there are still many points of similarity. For example, in the Raj, the British did not plant vast settler colonies and new cities filled with their own people (as, say, the Russian Empire was wont to do). Instead, a relative handful of British officials and soldiers controlled the lives of millions of people, who were exploited for the benefit of the imperial elite -- either directly, in the extraction of mineral resources and/or as sources of cheap labor, or indirectly, in situations where the domination of their lives and liberties and territory served some greater strategic aim of the imperial overlords. The parallels to the modern American way are too obvious, and too numerous, to detail here.
Then again, it's true that you don't see too many pith helmets amongst the soldiers, mercenaries, diplomats, bureacrats, contractors, spies, special oppers, death squadders and drone jockeys who now cover the earth on behalf of the never-ever-imperial American Empire. So maybe our amnesiacs are on to something. Maybe the Raj is not the most historically resonant model for our modern conglomeration of domination. Maybe we should look to that other empire that people have vaguely heard of, the one where they wore togas and stuff.
But the main thing for those in the long shadow of Rome -- whether under direct rule or military occupation or in a condition of "independent" clientage -- was, as noted, that they adhere to the imperial system, the Roman ordering of the world, in ways both large and small. Whether this inconvenienced the locals was of no matter; Rome's word was law, and thus rulers and peoples thousands of miles away from the arrogant city on the Italian peninsula were forced to twist and distort their own lives.
It is this model that sprang to mind when reading a small story in the Independent a few weeks ago. Buried in the travel section, it gave British readers a warning about yet another inconvenience coming up for air travellers. In many situation, they are now being forced to submit (a most apt word) their "personal data" to the United States Department of Homeland Security -- even if they are not travelling to the United States, or even crossing U.S. airspace.
"One million British travelers planning to fly to Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico this year face the risk of being turned away at the airport -- at the insistence of the US Department of Homeland Security.
"New rules require British Airways and other airlines flying to certain airports outside America to submit passengers' personal data to US authorities. The information is checked against a 'No Fly' list containing tens of thousands of names. Even if the flight plan steers well clear of US territory, travelers whom the Americans regard as suspicious will be denied boarding....
"For several years, every US-bound passenger has had to provide Advance Passenger Information (API) before departure. Washington has extended the obligation to air routes that over-fly US airspace, such as Heathrow to Mexico City or Gatwick to Havana.
"Now the US is demanding passengers' full names, dates of birth and gender from airlines, at least 72 hours before departure from the UK to Canada. The initial requirement is for flights to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and the Nova Scotia capital, Halifax -- 150 miles from the nearest US territory. A similar stipulation is expected soon for the main airports in western Canada, Vancouver and Calgary.
"Any passenger who refuses to comply will be denied boarding. Those who do supply details may find their trip could be abruptly cancelled by the Department of Homeland Security, which says it will "make boarding pass determinations up until the time a flight leaves the gate ... If a passenger successfully obtains a boarding pass, his/her name is not on the No Fly list." In other words, travelers cannot find out whether they will be accepted on board until they reach the airport."
Airlines are already scrambling to obey the edict, and the UK
government has, naturally, remained mum on this restriction of its
citizens' liberties. The new Obama security net will also tighten the
screws a little tighter on that perennial stone in the imperial sandal,
Cuba -- now in its sixth decade of sanctions for its non-adherence to
the imperial system. (And please, no protests that Cuba is being
punished because of its tyrannical regime; Washington makes hot, sweet
love with tyrannical regimes every day of the year without so much as a
quiver of moral concern over their repressed peoples. The Potomac
poobahs judge a nation not by the content of its character but by its
degree of acquiescence.)
"The US will have full details of all British visitors to Cuba, including business travelers, which could potentially be used to identify people suspected of breaking America's draconian sanctions against the Castro regime.
"Neil Taylor, a tour operator who pioneered tourism to Cuba, said: 'Imagine if the Chinese were to ask for such data on all passengers to Taiwan, and similarly if the Saudis were to ask about flights to Israel -- would the US government understand?