I spent a fair part of my early years living quite near the Iron Curtain. My childhood included more than the usual fun of bike rides and playing in the woods – it also included tanks rolling through the street in front of my house, calls in the middle of the night that had my father disappearing for weeks, and planning where I would hide out when the Soviets came.
On one of our school field trips, we went to Observation Point Alpha. We were told that if we stepped past the chain fence, we might get shot. Not a chainlink fence, but these little white posts connected by a single white chain. In retrospect, it was clearly an exaggeration by our guide, but most everyone in my class was aware of all the people that were shot trying to escape East Germany. If they would shoot their own people, they’d most certainly shoot us. When it was my turn to look through the binoculars, I wanted to see the faces of the people who would do that. It was hard to get a good view, but what I did see was this:
they looked just like us.
This is no great observation today, but do you remember what it was like, then? The awful evil scary Communists, lurking around every corner, waiting to kill us all? They looked just like us. It’s hard to describe just how much my world view has been shaped because of that field trip. Not necessarily because of what I saw and felt that day, but because what I saw and felt that day has moved me to question what I’ve been told, and keep asking questions, until I am satisfied.
One of the questions I asked, not so long after that, was of my German teacher, Herr Schmitt. Most of my American teachers would give slight variations on the same pat answer when I asked them about East Germany – “It’s a communist country, and communists are bad. They don’t believe in freedom.” Well, that’s fine, but what does that mean? That was a question that Herr Schmitt, alive when the walls went up and the curtains came down, was willing to answer.
East Germany was a very sad place, he said, because everyone was afraid. They were afraid of Americans, afraid of the Soviets, and afraid of each other. You couldn’t do anything in East Germany without someone knowing about it. If you did something someone thought the government would not approve of, they would tell on you, and it would go in your file. They keep files on normal people, like you and me. And those files are how the government watched people. If someone said or did too many things that the government didn’t like, the Stasi would come and throw them in jail, and their families would never hear from them again.
I don’t recall being entirely convinced, at the time. I mean, how could someone just disappear like that, without the family and everyone else doing something about it? And keeping records on everyone like that? Just seemed silly. Obviously, I didn’t understand.
What got me thinking and writing about this today? This:
[M]illions of Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders in the past four years have been assigned scores generated by U.S. government computers rating the risk that the travelers are terrorists or criminals.
[ . . . ]
Virtually every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is scored by the Homeland Security Department’s Automated Targeting System, or ATS. The scores are based on ATS’ analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.
The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.
It all feels . . . distantly familiar.