This was not the case on my return to the US.
I don’t think I look much like a terrorist. Despite my utter contempt for them, I am always careful to be exceptionally courteous and cooperative with police and bureaucrats who can make decisions that affect my future.
I went through the main line at US customs at San Francisco International Airport. After scanning my passport, the first officer sent me to a different station than the others she was processing. I don’t know if this was a random check, or if I looked like a terrorist because I hadn’t shaved in a day, or if my name popped up when she scanned the passport.
At the next station, I was questioned about what I did for a living. I explained that I was a webmaster. That was not sufficient, so I had to mention Antiwar.com. That sent me to the next escalation and a third station.
At the third station, I was questioned about the nature of Antiwar.com, the forum I went to, and everything I did in Malaysia. The officer looked through all the literature in detail. He made me unfurl an 8-foot banner I had brought back with pictures of all the speakers. He asked me about each speaker in detail, asked me about my relationship with the former PM Tun Dr. Mahathir, who he explained was “very anti-American.” He didn’t just go through my luggage, he examined the political content of the books and papers I had. He made comments about much of it. He was alarmed by the copy of Helen Caldicott’s book because the cover has a photo of Bush, Cheney, and Powell smiling beneath a mushroom cloud. He found it “anti-American.” Then he saw that it was personally autographed to me, which he clearly didn’t like.
He asked me whether there were a lot of Muslims (Duh! It’s Malaysia!). Did I meet anyone I thought might be associated with terrorists? Were there any people from Thailand? (Not that I knew of.)
It didn’t seem to be going well for me, and I am pretty sure that the next “station” would have been “the room” for more intensive interrogation. However, all of a sudden he noticed a group photo with me standing next to a Buddhist Monk, Dr. Chin Kung, who was a speaker at the event. The officer claimed to know who he was and said he saw him on television and liked him. His attitude changed, and he let me go. I am pretty sure he was wrong, because Dr. Kung does not speak English, so I doubt he saw him on TV. But probably to the officer, all Buddhist monks look alike. I am very happy that I met Dr. Kung.
This was a pretty scary experience and in stark contrast to my friendly welcome in Malaysia. I think I came close to a detention/interrogation session that could have turned into something much more serious. With all the articles we run on the site about this sort of thing, it was really brought home to me in a personal way.