Treating guests like criminals

February 11, 2004|By Tibor Glant

DEBRECEN, Hungary - People who risked a lot to regain and secure their political, human and civil rights tend to be more sensitive to possibly losing them again than people who were born with these rights.

As of Jan. 5, the United States began fingerprinting, photographing and color-coding people entering the country if they require a visa.

I have a beard, I speak English with a funny accent and I need a visa to enter the United States. But I am not and never have been a terrorist. The U.S. government cannot prove my guilt, and I have no chance to prove my innocence. I don't even get the benefit of the doubt.

As Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence, a document of freedom I went to see in the National Archives in 1989, when my native Hungary still lived under Soviet occupation, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." But U.S. citizens and people not traveling on a visa in the United States apparently have been created more equal.

I understand that the United States is at war with terrorism. I have long been afraid of terrorism. I worked for months to set up a public exhibit of Joel Meyerowitz's World Trade Center photos in the foyer of my university library, where several hundred people pass daily. This is not my job. I did it out of conviction and sympathy. I also understand that Americans tend to curtail constitutional and civil rights in times of war. But what has been going on in the United States since 9/11 is something different.

When the Cold War ended, many historians thought the events of 1989 and 1990 turned the 20th century into a detour: Liberal democracy defeated both of its totalitarian challengers - communism and Nazism/fascism - so it must be the best, most democratic form of government. Fifteen years later, I witness the scariest thing I can possibly imagine: The leading democratic country in the world - "the shining city upon a hill" - is reproducing the rhetoric, the methods and the institutions of its defeated totalitarian foes.

After 9/11, President Bush declared: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." This echoed the official slogan of the communist Matyas Rakosi regime in Hungary before 1956: "Who is not with us is against us." The Hungarian revolution changed many things, and by the 1970s the regime of Janos Kadar changed its rhetoric to, "Who is not against us is with us." A softer version, from a dictator who had his political opponents buried in unmarked graves, face down. So much for choice of words.

Monitoring certain foreign nationals in the country was a typical procedure of all totalitarian state police institutions, from the Nazis' Gestapo to the Soviet KGB. Being a target of any such program invokes memories of pre-1989 Hungary. It also raises a constitutional concern.

The relevant part of the 14th Amendment reads, "No state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Yet the Bush administration denies these rights to people who happened to have been born in the wrong country. The selective application of "the supreme law of the land" is a typically totalitarian method.

I come from a NATO ally of the United States, and the next time I visit my father (a U.S. citizen), go to research our common history or lecture at a conference, I'll be glad to enter another police archive. Maybe the Department of Homeland Security should ask the Hungarian National Archives for my Hungarian police files. After all, they are open for research now, and DHS can also get tips on potential informers.

It will be fun to be photographed and fingerprinted like a common criminal for the first time in my life. Shall I wear my orange jumpsuit?

Tibor Glant is chair of the North American department at the University of Debrecen.

Jules Witcover's column will appear Thursday.

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