In a few hours I’m boarding a flight to London for a short work trip.
I’ve made the transatlantic back and forth more times than I can count, and -- as you’ll know if you happen to have read my book on hotel living -- I’ve got packing down to an art.
I know exactly what clothes I need to pack in my single carry on bag for a one-week trip. I know exactly what devices I need in the small leather bag I take as my “personal item.” My laptop, my phone, perhaps a Kindle, a USB drive, MP3 player, and all the various cables. I sometimes take a second phone if I’m likely to make a lot of local calls and don’t want to keep swapping SIMs.
No. Strike all of that.
For the past decade or so I had packing down to an art. I knew exactly what to pack and what devices.
And then 26% of eligible American voters put Donald Trump in the White House.
Now, for anyone travelling internationally, everything is up for grabs. Literally up for grabs: With increasing reports of devices being seized and searched at the airport, social media passwords being demanded by border agents and phones being forcibly unlocked and analysed. And that’s just what they’re doing to American citizens. You’ve likely also read about how TSA has detained and grilled prime ministers and children's authors and anyone else who they arbitrarily decide is having too good a day.
For regular business or leisure travellers, the new policies (or, rather, the insanely aggressive implementation of existing policies) are a giant and potentially humiliating inconvenience. You need only read Mem Fox’s account of her treatment at the hands of the TSA to imagine how much worse things might be for Fox had she been Muslim, or pretty much anything other than an older, white, Australian children’s book author. Or if she’d previously posted something even vaguely critical of Donald Trump on social media.
I’m very white, and not muslim, but I’ve definitely made no secret of my feelings about President Trump here on Pando. I reckon my odds are pretty good, but then so probably did Hassan Aden, a former cop who was detained for hours at JFK, despite being an American citizen, born and raised.
Truth is, it’s a crapshoot. A terrifying crap shoot.
Needless to say, while I’m not too worried about my outgoing flight to London, I’m nervous about my return.
I’ve lived in the US for close to a decade now and it’s been a long time since I felt so much like a foreigner as I do in Trump’s America. And I have never, ever felt like a simple plane trip might result in my being detained and searched. Today that seems like a very real possibility, just as it seems like a very real possibility that I might not be allowed back in to the country I now call home. If this trip wasn’t so important, I’d likely stay hunkered down here in California. Maybe even for the next four years.
Here’s specifically what I’m worried about - and it’s something I assume a lot of journalists travelling for work are worried about. Here at Pando we spend a lot of money (too much money some months) fighting nuisance lawsuits and attempts to unmask sources. Whatever the underlying motivation, we have a hard and fast policy of refusing any request to access our data. It has to be hard and fast otherwise it wouldn’t be a policy, and we’d have no excuse not to make exceptions whenever we felt like it.
That hard and fast policy means even if I wanted to cooperate with a ridiculous airport fishing expedition on my Pando phone and laptop, I wouldn’t be able to -- I’d have to call our attorney (who likely wouldn’t be allowed to talk to me, if recent news reports are anything to go by) and generally make a pain in the ass of myself. Which means, as we also know from news reports, means I’d likely be deported.
And so for the first time ever, despite the fact that I’m not carrying any major secrets and -- in that phrase beloved of right-wingers -- I have “nothing to hide,” I have to change the way I’m packing for a trip between one Western democracy and another. In short, I’m having to travel very, very light: No laptop, no phone full of contacts or work emails, nothing with a password.
The good news is I had a head start on the social stuff. As I wrote last week, I’ve already deleted my accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google and the rest. There’s nothing in the cloud to find, no passwords to give up. But not, for the duration of this movie, gone too is the memory stick and any other non-essential devices. My phone -- which was already a dumb phone (another great piece of accidental foresight) -- is wiped and my laptop is staying home. I might buy a cheap Chromebook in London, or perhaps they still have Internet cafes in London. Who the hell knows?
I’m sure you agree: This is ridiculous. Farcical even. I’m just a guy going on a business trip, not an international spy (Or am I?) It’s also reality in Trump’s America.
And, again, let’s not forget I’m one of the lucky ones. At least I’m not travelling from a majority Muslim country to the UK, or back to the US. In which case I wouldn’t even have the option to take my laptop in my carry-on bag. At least I have a visa, which at least gives me a fighting chance of getting back in to the country, with or without my devices. And, again, at least I no longer have any social media accounts which might include mean postings about the President and thus render me inadmissible.
For me, the biggest inconvenience is… inconvenience. The hunt for an Internet cafe, the fact that I won’t be able to work on the 10 hour plane ride, the need to carry an extra book so I’ll have enough to read. I’m very aware that, for countless others, there’s nothing farcical about the realities of cross-border travel in Trump’s America.
And it’s only going to get worse.