Monday, January 02, 2006

Newspaper ducks

Did you ever hear about the crocodiles in the London Sewers? Fat, thriving and dangerous? Years ago I read an interview with a reporter who had worked as a summer intern in a large London paper, editing letters to the editor. One of these asked what would happen if a baby crocodile was flushed down the toilet in London. The intern thought this was a fun little problem, brought it to a local reptile expert, and found out that theoretically a baby crocodile should be able to survive. After the article had been picked up by a newsagency and it had startet its trip around the world, the crocodiles grew - until they became a menace to the workers maintaining the London sewer system. This taps into a rich tradition of crocodile myths, from several larger cities.

Urban legends, myths and hoaxes can live on because they confirm how we feel about the reality around us. The sewer system in major cities is something we would rather not think about, but we all know it has to be very sophisticated - and filled up with strange things. This makes it a land of mystery, terror and also fascination: the world below us which we cannot control.

A contemporary area we cannot control is the US homeland security. Since the 11th of september 2001 anecdotes of security gone bad have popped up with increasing frequencey. The most recent one is not yet totally debunked - I am talking about the story about the student who wanted to read Mao's little red book, and got a visit from Department of Homeland Security instead.

This was a very bloggable piece of news and as such may indicate that bloggs are the tools of media legends, but if you look at the boing boing discussion, you'll soon see that bloggers were working as actively to check on the story as they worked to spread it in the first place. At the end the student broke down and cried, and admitted it was a lie.

This is in itself a fascinating story, but as interesting is the general will to believe something like that. Why can we believe that an agency mainly concerned with national security would be interested in what a student reads?

For a foreigner it's easy to answer. Since 2001 it has become increasingly difficult to enter US. Firms of high repute and impeccable standards are unable to get work-permits for their foreign expert employees - not to mention the problems Universities face if they want to take on a visiting scholar. Normal travellers submit more and more information with each crossing of the borders, and the interrogations... I have occasionally written "business" on my visa waiver when I go to USA for conferences or similar events. Unless you want to keep the line waiting at immigration - don't do that. You will be interrogated about where you work, what you do, why you are there, details about your topics, tired, hungry and dizzy from 8 hours of travel you have to stand there and answer politely, clearly and correctly for 10 minutes. Say "pleasure", pretend your main goal is Bloomingdales, and you'll be fine.

Americans feel this increasing pressure towards more control every day. They need to carry some kind of identification all the time, identify themselves in order to get into the most mundane buildings, submit to having their picture taken and stored in order to meet a colleague or friend for lunch - the land of the free is becoming the land of the very carefully watched.

The world just beyond sight, the metaphorical sewer, is expressed as Homeland Security. In the name of protection, things we would rather not think about may grow, develop and suddenly leap out of nowhere to attack us. Innocent functions become strange and threatening, the pipes below your home, the information given to the library - who knows where it can lead?

No comments: