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We Are All Suspects Here

The European Union wins the Peace Prize and I think I know why.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

After our plane touched down in Newark, N. J., my family and I had an hour and a half to get to our connecting flight back to Hartford.

We were flying in from Europe. Because we needed to go through customs, we needed to first retrieve our luggage, have our passports checked, declare the Dutch cheese we were bringing back, re-check in our bigger bags, and then go back through security again. Still, an hour and a half seemed plenty of time.

Thus far on this two-week vacation, traveling with a seven-year-old had seemed to grease the wheels in our transit adventures.

We had traveled all across the Netherlands and spent time in Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Other than arriving at and leaving the Amsterdam airport at either end of the trip, we’d only needed to show our passports once. At the French border an unarmed officer made his way quickly through the train cars; when he came to our seats, he barely glanced at the identification we offered him. He returned the passports with a nod.

That was the only time my family and I had any kind of interaction with law or security officers while away. We’d driven hundreds of miles across Holland, but not once did I see a car pulled over or a cop hiding behind an overpass, waiting to catch someone speeding. We’d walked the streets of French, Dutch and Belgian cities, and the police registered on my radar on only two occasions—both in Amsterdam, toward the end of the trip.

As I waited outside a store, I watched a Dutch policewoman give directions to tourists in three languages. Her uniform and poised demeanor gave her an air of authority, but she didn’t carry any apparent weapon. She seemed more concerned about helping people find their way or a place for a kid to pee than she did about fighting crime.

The next day, my son and I stumbled across an apparent foiled robbery attempt on an armored car refilling an ATM outside a Dutch bank. The back of the armored car stood open and a dozen or so police were busy arresting suspects and questioning bystanders. They wore bright reflective vests and were easily identified as police, but they were so low-key and quietly efficient in their approach that my boy and I were in the thick of things before we registered what was going on. We hurried on our way, and when we came back a short while later, only a few police remained.

When we got to immigration in Newark, as I stood with my family beside me, the immigration official took my fingerprints and scanned my optics. Though he studied our identification slowly and carefully, the official barely looked at me and never acknowledged my wife or child.

The customs team didn’t care when we said we had aged Dutch Gouda, but they snapped to attention when, upon reflection, we remembered that there might be an apple in our carry-on bags.

“Possible apple coming through,” the lady with the badge barked to the guy on the far side of the machinery that was to scan our belongings. The team and the screens peeking inside our luggage confirmed suspicions. There, amongst my European comics and board games, was a Granny Smith that had followed us home from France. The guy at the far end of the surveillance chain removed the offending fruit with rubber gloves on and held it up as if it were a leprous fetus.

“We’re going to have to confiscate your apple,” he mumbled.

Rechecking our bags was easy. Though my dignity and sense of proportion were being challenged, we were making decent time. We had about 40 minutes to go before departure, and I had only one last opportunity to remove my shoes and belt, place all my belongings in bins, and hope nothing beeped while I walked through the scanners.

The officer who checked my passport this time had oiled hair and the gruff temperament of a B-movie jail warden. Again, no eye contact. He didn’t ask us anything, but later barked at the line we were standing in: “Why don’t you go down that way? There’s no one there.” The once-wide corridor to the gates had been turned into four narrow lanes with makeshift walls. We stampeded down the path single-file for a short while before we met the backs of a very, very long line of weary travelers. Veterans and injured skiers in wheel chairs were waiting patiently ahead of us. More people crowded in behind us. The line moved slowly; the security check remained distant.

And then an alarm went off. More shouting. Security started storming down the lanes around us, yelling. I couldn’t tell what was being said, but other travelers translated. Someone might have slipped through one of the other lanes undetected. They were locking down the entire wing of the airport. Everything ground to a halt.

For more than 40 minutes, hundreds of us melted in the hallway, getting bitchy. While police and suit-and-tie authorities waddled by, none bothered to explain what was going on. Leaning against the glass, we stared at the ceiling. Because the divider walls weren’t tall enough, the space at the top was spanned with heavy-duty chicken wire, bolted into place. Back in the land of the free and the home of the brave, I felt neither.

The decision to award the European Union the Nobel Peace Prize might have seemed slightly curious to me last month, before my trip. Hearing it announced the day after my visit to Newark, it seemed fitting.

There was plenty of evidence that hard times had come to all the countries we visited, just as they have at home. There were lots of empty offices and for-sale signs, and during the few days we spent in northern France, 2,000 workers had been let go from jobs at a local factory. In every urban setting we visited, we saw the homeless. In the last decade, EU nations have also faced devastating acts by domestic and foreign terrorists. According to reports, not all nations in Europe are equally understated in their policing. Friends of mine were pulled over on a Dutch highway, and British surveillance sounds like it’s gotten out of control.

But in the European Union countries I visited for two weeks in October, crisscrossing borders with my family, the sense of liberty, fraternity and equality we experienced felt more real and substantial than anything the teams of well-equipped security folk at Newark Airport offered us. In Europe, I was never made to feel like a suspect.

In those distant lands where everything is a bit strange, a sense of security seems not to be measured by the presence of visible brawn, intimidation and slick equipment, but by how discreet and invisible enforcement is.

Almost an hour later, the line moved again. After our carry-ons were repeatedly scanned, officials discovered and confiscated a potentially dangerous jar of unopened peanut butter. As it turned out, our plane was an hour late anyway.•

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