My interrogation at the U.S. border

| August 24, 2010
Stefan Christoff, who was detained at the Canada-U.S. border and questioned about his politics after the G20 Summit. Photo: Valerian Mazataud/

Under fluorescent lights at the U.S./Canada border, south of Montreal, questions on the war in Iraq and the Palestinian Intifada were fired towards me by officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

It quickly became clear after arriving at the border and presenting my passport to U.S. customs officials that crossing into the U.S. would include an unwanted inquiry. After scanning my Canadian passport, gruff American officials hastily directed me to sit in the waiting area. Shortly after, an armed U.S. official called my name, directing me toward another section of the border crossing station.

An interrogation on my political views ensued, stretching out over an hour in an isolated holding area at U.S. customs control, the barrage of questions extended in unnerving ways into my involvement in social justice activism for more than a decade in Montreal.

"Can you tell me what you think about the war in Iraq?" questioned the young American man in uniform. In response my words outlined my opposition to the 2003 U.S.-lead invasion and the ongoing military occupation under the Obama administration, a common view in Montreal, where over 200,000 people demonstrated on the streets in the winter months prior to the U.S. invasion, some of the largest anti-war demonstrations in North America.

"Do you have family in the Middle East?" he inquired, offering one of the few surprising questions in the interrogation. In follow-up, a barrage of detailed questions focusing on the family names and geographical origins of my mother, my father and all my grandparents were presented.

A similarly absurd line of questioning was outlined at Israeli border in 2003 during my attempt to travel Palestine to work with the International Solidarity Movement, to participate in non-violent campaign of direct action against the Israeli military occupation, a border crossing effort that was unsuccessful. After hours of questions, Israeli military officials dragged me into a military bus, deported me to Jordan and barred me from travelling to Israel for a decade.

To the intrusive questions by the robotic U.S. official on family origins, I responded with nothing about family roots but my belief that opposing injustice in Iraq, in Palestine or anywhere in the world is about principle and is rooted in solidarity with people experiencing grave oppression and unthinkable military violence.

Today, my account and critique on the U.S. border interrogation is being written in New York City, as border agents explained, after an hour of questioning, that they would allow me entry into the U.S. "this time," words that could be viewed as a subtle threat toward future choices in relation to social activism.

In response to interrogation these words are written to contribute to growing opposition to the increasing militarization of borders around the world, extreme examples stand in the fortified walls along the militarized U.S./Mexico border, or the Israeli apartheid wall in Palestine.

In my mind it is critical to also challenge the unacceptable reality that social justice activists, critical toward government policy, are facing detention and interrogation along borders. Challenging ideas voiced by activists must not be silenced but cherished as a contribution to meaningful democratic debate.

Questioning Iraq war

Repeated questions by officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on my role in participating and facilitating street protests, specifically in opposition to the war in Iraq, point to deep political contradictions in a nation who elected a president, Barack Obama, after a historic election campaign strongly rooted in opposition toward the invasion and military occupation of Iraq.

Obama's presidential photo, fixed high on a wall above armed U.S. border agents aggressively pressing unwelcomed questions, strongly undercut remaining hopes for political change in America, certainly toward a more open approach to national security and war.

As the U.S. administration announces an end to combat operations in Iraq, to great media fanfare, profound reasons to continue campaigning on the streets for an end to occupation stand.

Today, more than 50,000 troops remain in Iraq, along with thousands of special operation forces and tens-of-thousands of private military contractors; Iraq remains under military occupation.

It is social activists, not government officials or mainstream media commentators that unravelled the inherent injustice of the 2003 invasion and can now shatter Obama administration illusions of an end to war in Iraq and issue meaningful challenges to the ongoing U.S. military occupation.

Still Iraq has seen no justice for the thousands of victims of torture and the estimated over 600,000 Iraqi civilians who lost their lives as a direct result of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Numeric adjustments and vain altercations in U.S. troop visibility do not equal an end to military occupation in Iraq, a birthplace of civilization struck by a neo-colonial catastrophe.

Orientalist images of rugged soldiers driving into the distance on dusty roads broadcast by the mainstream media must not distract social movements from demanding justice for the millions of victims of the Iraq war.

In light of the fact that opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion worked to shape Obama's election campaign, it is both maddening and revealing to be questioned as an activist on my relationship to the grassroots movement that opposed the war in Iraq. Unravelling systemic injustice and military violence will not happen via the ballet box but by challenging political structures in our society that hold the keys of power that is rooted in injustice.

Borders and militarization

The U.S. military invasion of Iraq and the militarization of national borderlines occur in tandem. Militarization abroad is often reflected at home, sometimes in very material ways.

"When border wall construction began, U.S. used surplus military metal landing strips, from the first war in Iraq, as the slats for the wall along the Mexico border," says Arnoldo García, the program director of the Immigrant Justice & Rights program at National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

As the U.S. dispenses another major boost in spending to fortify the U.S./Mexico border, an additional $600 million announced by the Obama administration, including financing for aerial surveillance drones, in tandem to the Mérida Initiative orchestrating massive internal militarization in Mexico, border politics are becoming a quiet war.

In an information age, ideas largely travel freely across the world, via telecommunication lines weaving over the depths of ocean floors or satellites beaming messages to mobile devices across the globe, but the open exchange of ideas is increasingly a principal to defend in an era of militarized borders.

As political leaders play politics via terminology like "globalization" and "free trade" at elite global forums, on the ground borderlines in our world are increasingly under lockdown as the world enters a new era of walls.

"We don't need to build walls, we need to build bridges. That's why I fought for NAFTA," writes Bill Clinton in the 1996 book Between Hope and History. In reality the North American Free Trade Agreement, touted as an open exchange between nations, is a trade accord rooted squarely in capital interests and marked the beginning of an era of increased militarization along the U.S./Mexico border. As economic fortunes in Mexico were undercut for many under NAFTA, millions turned to the U.S. for opportunity only to be face with walls, military troops, and razor wire.

To the north, over recent years the borderline between the U.S. and Canada, widely known as the longest unguarded border in the world, is in fact becoming increasingly guarded within the post 9/11 security rubric, as governments in Ottawa and Washington funnel billions into building national fortress lines.

To the north, the Department of Homeland Security created the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in 2004 to increase security on the northern border, in coordination with conservative politicians in Canada today there are increasing moves to militarize the historically open borderline.

Unmanned drone surveillance aircraft fly 20,000 above wheat fields in the prairie lands stretching between the U.S. and Canada, from Montana to Manitoba and along the dramatic mountains along coastal lands along the west coast. In recent years, Canadian border guards have been armed for the first time in Canada's history, a controversial move under the current Conservative government in Ottawa.

A shift to create militarized zones between nations in North America will only undercut civil rights and undermine our collective security. My words are written in an attempt to bring my own story of interrogation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security out of the shadows, an appeal for solidarity in the face of interrogation by armed border guards.

Political profiling along the U.S./Canadian border, the targeting activists that monitor and challenge unjust government policy, speaks to this increasing fortification of borders in our world threatening to undermine the open exchange of ideas that is foundational to democracy.

No Nations. Just People.

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based community organizer, journalist and musician who contributes to and is at



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