I always knew that I was eccentric, but I never realized just how much until I found myself telling a customs official that the main reason for my trip to Cyprus was to see 12,000 migrating flamingos. Coincidentally, this was also the reason why I decided to leave Cyprus early. The birds were supposed to arrive at the beginning of November, but when I touched down and saw that the 16-km salt lake where they were supposed to spend the winter was still a barren pit of sand, I opted to move on to Tel Aviv.
I didn’t expect the woman on the other side of the counter to be sympathetic about any of that, but I also didn’t think she would find it unbelievable. Actually, I was kind of surprised she asked in the first place. As a white lady with a blue passport, I’m not often made to explain myself at airports. And that’s probably a good thing because I’d be hard pressed to come up with decent explanations as to why I visited many countries this past year. Serbia, Albania, Estonia, Latvia… they don’t even have flamingos.
All told, I spent about 30 minutes talking to the Cyprus immigration team. They covered all the basics: every country I had ever been to; every person I met along the way; how I paid my bills; what I did in my spare time. They wanted to know, in detail, what I did the last time I was in Israel, who I knew there and why I was going back. They asked to read draft chapters of my book and look at the photos on my phone. They found an expired passport I had in my carryon and acted like they caught me in a great lie – first, for failing to mention that I had one, and second for not remembering a 24-hour layover in Morocco a year and a half ago. When they were done, they swabbed every item in my backpack with a bomb detector and then made me check the entire bag anyway. When all was said and done, I was questioned by four officials, searched by three and paged twice for additional screenings once I cleared the usual security check.
For me, it was all pretty intense. I know many people face far greater scrutiny every time they try to board a plane, but I’ve been lucky not to. Over the past two years, I’ve been questioned by the police or customs or another authority figure with any real enthusiasm only a handful of times. It’s a privilege that I am well aware of.
And I’m not complaining about the fact that it doesn’t apply in Israel. It’s 2017 and when a single girl rolls into an airport talking about migration patterns and waving a ticket she bought 24 hours prior, it’s perfectly reasonable to give her a closer look. In fact, I’m glad these people take their jobs seriously. I don’t want to get blown up over the Mediterranean any more than the next person.
So, please, border control, ask away! Scan as you wish! Swab my sunglasses. I’m a dog who knows her name. I don’t blame you for being cautious in an unpredictable world. If the shoe was on the other foot, I too would ask for it to be removed so I could check the sole for explosives.
My inconvenience at the airport, however minor it may have been, was easy to rationalize because it was in service to the greater good. It’s an extra step that needed to be taken to ensure that I didn’t pose a threat to anyone else’s safety. I may have a right to board a plane, but not if the country I’m traveling to suspects I’m going to blow the damn thing up.
This, by the way, is how I feel about people who want to own guns. Being able to buy one might be a constitutional right, but first the person should have to prove that they’re not going to do anything dangerous with it. A background check and a thorough interview should be part of the deal. Perhaps we should be like Canada, Australia, Germany, France, and just about every other developed nation and require would-be owners to take a public safety course. Maybe we should re-test and reevaluate people every five years just to make sure they’re being responsible.
I don’t know why people have a problem with any of this, but they do. Apparently, it’s unreasonable to ask people who want to buy a gun to fill out an application, answer some questions and wait a few days for an answer. They’d rather let a guy who once cracked his own child’s skull open slip through the cracks of gun ownership because of a single error, than create a system that inconveniences people with multiple checks. They don’t want to hear anything about “the greater good” – not when it will cost them time and energy.
I say that not as a liberal New Yorker, but as a native Pennsylvanian. I grew up in a house with guns. Some of the best memories I have of my father involve shooting aluminum cans off a rotten tree trunk in the woods. (Also, accidentally shooting the door of our car because none us ever bothered to take a safety course.) Even my father would probably agree: the rules are too lax and no one needs a bump stock. And keep in mind, this is the man who once killed a snake with a moccasin and dragged an 18-foot pine tree into our living room every Christmas. He’s not exactly the type of person to argue for moderation or restraint. He is an unlikely voice of reason and his argument probably goes like this: “Bump stock?! Get over here – I’ll bump stock you!”
I realize that changing the rules might not make a bit of difference. Maybe better vetting processes won’t stop nut cases from getting a gun. Maybe people will find a way around new rules just as easily as the old ones. Maybe a public safety course will just help people improve their aim. I get that. But we’re at a point where we need to try something.
Right now, America is in an “either/or situation”. Either we make it tougher to get weapons, or we resign ourselves to attending church in a state of hyper-vigilance. Either we require people to take a test to use a gun, or we send our kids to school with bulletproof backpacks. Either we create a better system for background checks, or we avoid movie theaters, concerts and baseball games. Either we try something new or we continue to have mass shootings on the weekly.
You tell me which sounds more reasonable.