POSTSCRIPT / July 1, 2003 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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US ports unfriendly to ‘balikbayan’ box

NEW YORK – For those who did not lose a friend or relative in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers here on Sept. 11, 2001, Ground Zero at this time may not be as heart-rending as it was for those who were seared by it that fateful Tuesday.

But viewing the big hole where once stood proudly the twin towers and recalling the more than 3,000 lives lost when hijacked jet planes were flown smack into them, one cannot help feeling the enormity of the crime committed against humanity that day.

That was the day America was jolted out of its complacency. Suddenly, Americans luxuriating in comparative ease and comfort realized that they were vulnerable after all.

This, coupled with the fact that there are thousands who knew at least one person caught in that inferno and who in turn shared the loss with several others, multiplied the grief, anger and fear that those closest to Ground Zero experienced.

Ground Zero explains many of the moves that America took in the aftermath of 9/11, including its sending of troops for preemptive strikes against the shadowy enemy in foreign lands.

While sometimes critical of the violent reaction orchestrated by hawkish elements that had captured the White House, this visitor understands. We may not agree with all of it, but we do understand the underlying motivations.

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BIZARRE AMBIENCE: Residents of the Big Apple, some of them dabbling in the tourism business, recall to us the near-full occupancy of most hotels here before 9/11 and how this dropped to 25-30 percent levels after.

That was the bad news in the hospitality business. The good news came when the curious who were not deterred by the bizarre ambience started to flock to New York to see and try capturing the moment before it completely fades out.

The arrivals, however, have been low on foreign visitors. We were told that most people visiting New York to grab a slice of 9/11 are Americans from out of state.

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OBSTACLE COURSE: We guess that foreign arrivals had been reduced not only by fear of riding on a potential flying bomb and the other fear of catching SARS along the way, but also by the forbidding obstacle course set up by US airport authorities.

Even if you’re carrying a valid US visa, you are still subjected to minute scrutiny at the port of entry, especially if the immigration officer senses something, anything, about you the moment you step forward for scrutiny.

In these post-9/11 days, a foreign visitor is not only presumed to be an intending immigrant or a potential overstaying alien, but also a possible terrorist.

That is legally defensible under US laws since a visa is not a guaranteed open-sesame, but only a permission for you to apply for actual entry at a US port, subject to whatever they think of next. Sorry, but it’s their country.

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EYE OF A NEEDLE: Every piece of luggage is opened. Forget about embarrassing very personal items in your luggage. Aside from the x-ray and such detectors, they just have to examine everything visually, by (gloved) hand, and with a swipe that can sniff explosive elements.

And everybody will have to take off his shoes fore inspection, whether one is a Senate president or whatever delusions of self-importance one has. Laptops, celfons, keys, coins and other metals are removed from your person and passed through the machine separately from your body.

With every person passing through this paranoid eye of a needle, you can imagine the nightmarish body and baggage gridlock at airports. This is repeated at every airport on your way to your final destination.

So leave home that trademark of the Filipino traveler – the balikbayan box taped all over and tied with ropes.

After they slit it open for inspection, and they go over your bagoong, ensaymada and Last Supper work of art, how will the poor box travel intact through other airports along the way?

If you’re toting suitcases, you are advised to leave them unlocked. If they are locked, the locks will be destroyed even in your absence. If you’re not afforded the chance to lock them again, they are likely to travel on in that vulnerable condition. Imagine your suitcases arriving at the Manila airport unlocked!

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PORKY PROPOSAL: Massachusetts Sen. Guy Glodis kicked a hornet nest when he distributed a flier days ago suggesting that terrorist attacks might be deterred by burying attackers’ bodies with pig entrails. You can imagine the reaction of Muslim Americans.

Recalling the execution of Muslim extremists in the Philippines by US Gen. John Pershing in 1913, Glodis said: “Maybe it is time for this segment of history to repeat itself, maybe in Iraq.”

He must have been under the impression that prospects of being thrown in with pigs might discourage Islamic suicide bombers. Muslims are forbidden by their religion from eating pork or having any contact with pigs.

The same idea had been suggested in Manila long ago, but nobody took it seriously.

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HOLD THAT TXT!: Up to here, we keep getting swamped by the usual text messages on our tri-band celfon from people who must be unaware that we are thousands of kilometers across the Pacific.

It should be all right, even considering the extra expense, if the msgs were important. But many of them are just the usual jokes, the black propaganda against political targets (mostly Sen. Panfilo Lacson), biblical verses and quotable quotes, and invitations that we can’t RSVP to anyway.

We wonder how high the charges would pile up. We understand that the local carrier in the city where we happen to be will bill our Philippine carrier, which will then tack on the charges to our bill.

* * *

WOODROW WILSON FORUM: We’ve also received calls and email commenting on the C-Span TV coverage of last Friday’s closing forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. In that show, we seven journalists from East Asia participating in a State department program were grilled on our views on terrorism and the US response to it.

Since we were sitting there for the live show (we were all caught rather unprepared for it), may we ask anybody who might have taped the show (or burned it onto a CD) to share it with us? Please email us first to prevent duplication.

One such email about the TV show came from June Singson using a yahoo address, who said in part:

“I was watching the lively debate live and I was particularly interested in your statement that your government is ‘capable’ is flushing out the Muslim rebels in Southern Philippines.

“If my readings are correct, skirmishes started during the Marcos fascist dictatorship. Mrs. Aquino, Mr. Ramos, a West Pointer, Mr. Estrada assumed the presidency and currently, Mrs. Arroyo is in power. If your government can really contain the Muslim problem, why is it that till now, there are bloody fightings in the South?

“If it is true that some of your high military personnel are in connivance with the rebels, how could the enemy be destroyed? A sixth grader cannot believe why the surrounded rebels in Lamitan (?) were able to escape. A priest said that your military connived with the rebels.

“If the Philippines can really handle the Muslim rebels, we have no reason to wait for the next Philippine president to sit.

“Would it not be better if one says that in all honesty, the Philippine government cannot do it alone. We need the help of the US… If the Philippines can handle the job as you said, it is about time for your government to act to end the senseless carnage.

“My highest esteem and regards to you, Mr. Pascual. In the said debate, you showed your color as a nationalist wearing your national costume and your flag. I respect that and so with your fearless expression of your views.”

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GIVE US THE TOOLS: We responded in part: “I wished you caught also my remarks that we Filipinos have not been able to develop to optimum level our military capability because for decades we had depended on the US (under our mutual defense and other pacts) to defend the islands for us and themselves (their bases).

“When the US military pulled out of the Philippines in 1991, we were left naked. I had no notes throughout the WWilson session, but I remember saying or asking the US, paraphrasing Churchill, “give us the tools.”

“While logistics and materiel are not everything in a military campaign, it would help our boys immensely if they were properly equipped for the difficult mission given them.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 1, 2003)

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