America Welcomes Careful Tweeters (Or How To Lose Friends And Alienate DHS Officers)

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on January 31, 2012

From The News Desk

I've been irked about this all day.

Over at Gigaom, Matthew Ingram writes about 26-year-old British barman, Leigh Van Bryan who was denied entry to America after the Department Of Homeland Security objected to two of his tweets.

In one tweet, posted weeks before he flew to LAX, Van Bryan wrote "3 weeks today, we're totally in LA pissing people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin' Marilyn Monroe up!" In another he asked a friend if she was "free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America".

Turns out the words "destroy America" were enough to flag Van Bryan for secondary screening by the DHS at LAX, after which he and his girlfriend were interviewed, handcuffed, detained overnight and then deported.

Ingram calls out the DHS for lacking a sense of humor, adding "doing [screening of social networks] properly also requires some sense of proportion about what constitutes a real threat and what is clearly a joke. Did Homeland Security really think that a 26-year-old bar manager was a serious threat?"

And it's at that point that I became irked. Not by the DHS, but by Ingram.

For one thing, the idea that a 26-year-old bar manager from the UK couldn't be a serious terrorist threat is idiotic. Richard Reid -- a Brit -- was a 28 year old student when he attempted to set blow up his shoe-bomb in 2002. Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- the underwear bomber -- was also studying in London when he applied for, and received his American visa. In 2009, the CIA warned that British-based terrorirsts posted the greatest threat to America and American interests.

I'm not -- not, not, not -- accusing Ingram of anything here, but could it be possible that he really meant to ask whether Homeland Security really think that a 26-year-old white bar manager could pose a serious threat? Surely not.

But terrorism -- and who may or may not want to destroy America -- is actually a secondary issue here. In his defense Van Bryan argues that by "destroy" America he simply meant to rip it up, to go crazy, to have fun. Or, as he also put it, "to piss people off on Holywood Boulevard".

I'm inclined to take Van Bryan at his word. He's not a terrorist, he's just a fucking dick. Another British tourist who thinks they can travel to any country they like, behave however they like, and still be welcomed with open arms.

I'm a Brit who came to America, first as a tourist and now as a proud visa holder. I'm not a citizen, I'm just a guest here -- albeit a long-term one. And even during the darkest days of my alcoholic past I never once lost sight of the fact that I was unbelievably fortunate to be here. One obnoxious word to an immigrations officer, or one idiotic tweet disrespecting my hosts, and my next visit to the land of the free may be my last.

From less fortunate friends, I also knew how the denial of entry process works -- once you've been denied entry -- even if it's just because you arrived with the wrong visa -- you don't just get to hang around the terminal. Instead you're detained by law enforcement until they can put you on a flight -- which usually includes an overnight stay in a cell, and probably an hour or so in handcuffs, which is how people are generally transported to cells.

Is this evidence of a police state? A Big Brother mentality? A lack of perspective? No. There are legitimate questions to be asked about the TSA's use of backscatter xrays and invasive searches and no-fly lists for American citizens. After all, Americans -- and, in many cases, visitors like me -- are given the full protection of the US Constitution, particularly the amendments related to freedom of speech and illegal searches. But none of those wonderful constitutional protections or considerations kicks in until the DHS officer nods, smiles and applies that all-important visa stamp to a visitor's passport.

Up until that point travellers are entitled to little more than common courtesy, assuming of course that courtesy is a two-way thing. If someone showed up at my front door after Tweeting about how they planned to abuse my hospitality by "pissing people off" then they wouldn't make it past the threshold. I suspect Ingram would operate a similar policy in his own home. Why then should that same principle not apply to visitors threatening to behave badly within America's borders?

Terrorism, freedom of speech and wailing about Big Brother have nothing to do with the story of Leigh Van Bryan. The story of Leigh Van Bryan is simply about how one gobby little Brit learned that if you say "fuck you" to America, they'll happily handcuff you, throw you in a call overnight and then kick your ass all the way back to Blighty.

The end.