Two weeks ago, Sidd Bikkannavar flew back into the United States after spending a few weeks abroad in South America. An employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Bikkannavar had been on a personal trip, pursuing his hobby of racing solar-powered cars. He had recently joined a Chilean team, and spent the last weeks of January at a race in Patagonia.
Bikkannavar is a seasoned international traveller — but his return home to the US this time around was anything but routine. Bikkannavar left for South America on January 15th, under the Obama Administration. He flew back from Santiago, Chile to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas on Monday, January 30th, just over a week into the Trump Administration.
Bikkannavar says he was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol and pressured to give the CBP agents his phone and access PIN. Since the phone was issued by NASA, it may have contained sensitive material that wasn’t supposed to be shared. Bikkannavar’s phone was returned to him after it was searched by CBP, but he doesn’t know exactly what information officials might have taken from the device.
The JPL scientist returned to the US four days after the signing of a sweeping and controversial Executive Order on travel into the country. The travel ban caused chaos at airports across the United States, as people with visas and green cards found themselves detained, or facing deportation. Within days of its signing, the travel order was stayed, but not before more than 60,000 visas were revoked, according to the US State Department.
His ordeal also took place at a time of renewed focus on the question of how much access CBP can have to a traveler’s digital information, whether or not they’re US citizens: in January, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed complaints against CBP for demanding that Muslim American citizens give up their social media information when they return home from overseas. And there’s evidence that that kind of treatment could become commonplace for foreign travelers. In a statement this week, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that people visiting the United States may be asked to give up passwords to their social media accounts. "We want to get on their social media, with passwords: What do you do, what do you say?" Kelly told the House Homeland Security Committee. "If they don't want to cooperate then you don't come in."
Seemingly, Bikkannavar’s reentry into the country should not have raised any flags. Not only is he a natural-born US citizen, but he’s also enrolled in Global Entry — a program through CBP that allows individuals who have undergone background checks to have expedited entry into the country. He hasn’t visited the countries listed in the immigration ban and he has worked at JPL — a major center at a US federal agency — for 10 years. There, he works on “wavefront sensing and control,” a type of optics technology that will be used on the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.
“I don’t know what to think about this,” Bikkannavar recently told The Verge in aphone call. “...I was caught a little off guard by the whole thing.”
Bikkannavar says he arrived into Houston early Tuesday morning, and was detained by CBP after his passport was scanned. A CBP officer escorted Bikkannavar to a back room, and told him to wait for additional instructions. About five other travelers who had seemingly been affected by the ban were already in the room, asleep on cots that were provided for them.
About 40 minutes went by before an officer appeared and called Bikkannavar’s name. “He takes me into an interview room and sort of explains that I’m entering the country and they need to search my possessions to make sure I’m not bringing in anything dangerous,” he says. The CBP officer started asking questions about where Bikkannavar was coming from, where he lives, and his title at work. It’s all information the officer should have had since Bikkannavar is enrolled in Global Entry. “I asked a question, ‘Why was I chosen?’ And he wouldn’t tell me,” he says.
The officer also presented Bikkannavar with a document titled “Inspection of Electronic Devices” and explained that CBP had authority to search his phone. Bikkannavar did not want to hand over the device, because it was given to him by JPL and is technically NASA property. He even showed the officer the JPL barcode on the back of phone. Nonetheless, CBP asked for the phone and the access PIN. “I was cautiously telling him I wasn’t allowed to give it out, because I didn’t want to seem like I was not cooperating,” says Bikkannavar. “I told him I’m not really allowed to give the passcode; I have to protect access. But he insisted they had the authority to search it.”
Courts have upheld customs agents' power to manually search devices at the border, but any searches made solely on the basis of race or national origin are still illegal. More importantly, travelers are not legally required to unlock their devices, although agents can detain them for significant periods of time if they do not. “In each incident that I’ve seen, the subjects have been shown a Blue Paper that says CBP has legal authority to search phones at the border, which gives them the impression that they’re obligated to unlock the phone, which isn’t true,” Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of CAIR Florida, told The Verge. “They’re not obligated to unlock the phone.”
Nevertheless, Bikkannavar was not allowed to leave until he gave CBP his PIN. The officer insisted that CBP had the authority to search the phone. The document given to Bikkannavar listed a series of consequences for failure to offer information that would allow CBP to copy the contents of the device. “I didn’t really want to explore all those consequences,” he says. “It mentioned detention and seizure.” Ultimately, he agreed to hand over the phone and PIN. The officer left with the device and didn’t return for another 30 minutes.
Eventually, the phone was returned to Bikkannavar, though he’s not sure what happened during the time it was in the officer’s possession. When it was returned he immediately turned it off because he knew he had to take it straight to the IT department at JPL. Once he arrived in Los Angeles, he went to NASA and told his superiors what had happened. Bikkannavar can’t comment on what may or may not have been on the phone, but he says the cybersecurity team at JPL was not happy about the breach. Bikkannavar had his phone on hand while he was traveling in case there was a problem at work that needed his attention, but NASA employees are obligated to protect work-related information, no matter how minuscule. We reached out to JPL for comment, but the center didn’t comment on the event directly.
Bikkannavar noted that the entire interaction with CBP was incredibly professional and friendly, and the officers confirmed everything Bikkannavar had said through his Global Entry background checks. CBP did not respond to a request for comment.
He posted an update on Facebook about what happened, and the story has since been shared more than 2,000 times. A friend also tweeted about Bikkannavar’s experience, which was also shared more than 7,000 times. Still, he’s left wondering the point of the search, and he’s upset that the search potentially compromised the privacy of his friends, family, and coworkers who were listed on his phone. He has since gotten a completely new device from work with a new phone number.
“It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something dangerous in, because they didn’t even touch the bags. They had no way of knowing I could have had something in there,” he says. “You can say, ‘Okay well maybe it’s about making sure I’m not a dangerous person,’ but they have all the information to verify that.”
Bikkannavar says he’s still unsure why he was singled out for the electronic search. He says he understands that his name is foreign — its roots go back to southern India. He didn’t think it would be a trigger for extra scrutiny, he says. “Sometimes I get stopped and searched, but never anything like this. Maybe you could say it was one huge coincidence that this thing happens right at the travel ban.”
One reason I'm probably not fighting stuff like this these days as much as I should was that I spent the last 16 years complaining about these sorts of issues under two presidencies. I still can't get people to admit that, just maybe, the government shouldn't be holding onto powers like this regardless of who is in charge. Their complaints are usually that the other side shouldn't have these powers.
Confession time: I'm an optimist, especially about the ideas of social progress that emerged in Europe at the end of the middle ages and became mainstream in western politics in the early 20th century. I called the outcome of the Brexit referendum wrong (by underestimating the number of racist bigots and Little Englanders in the UK population: Brexit is a proxy for English nationalism, which is absolutely not the same as British nationalism), and I called the US presidential election wrong (underestimating the extent of gerrymandering and micro-targeted black propaganda driven by data mining in the campaign).
Since January 20th we've seen a degree and type of activity emanating from the new US administration that is markedly different from anything in my politically aware lifetime (loosely: since Reagan). Blanket bans on entry to the USA by anyone associated with certain nationalities, mass firings at the State Department, a president railing against a "so-called judge", the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff being booted off the National Security Council and replaced by a white nationalist ideologue, and a former CEO of Exxon in the Cabinet: what's going on?
Let me pull on my pessimist's hat and advance the most scary hypothesis I can imagine that explains the current situation.
Please note that the following scenario assumes that what we are witnessing is deliberate and planned and that the people in Trump's inner circle actually have a coherent objective they are working towards. (I desperately hope that I'm wrong on all counts.)
Here's the thing: we are looking at an administration that is very clearly being operated on behalf of carbon extraction industries. Trump's cabinet picks are almost all climate change deniers. While there are some questionable exceptions--Tillerson has apparently conceded some human link with climate change--even those who are "soft" on climate change existing at all stand to benefit from interests in the coal and oil industries.
There is a huge asset bubble tied up in uncombustable fossil fuels--the carbon bubble. In addition, there is a base of approximately $70Tn ($70,000 billion--let that sink in for a moment) of installed infrastructure for processing fossil fuels and petrochemicals (with plastic and composite manufacturing being relatively small compared to packaging, shipping, and burning the stuff for energy).
Meanwhile, rival power industries are coming on stream rapidly. Solar power and electric cars could halt growth in fossil fuel demand as soon as 2020. The cost of solar has fallen by 85% in the past 7 years: by 2035 electric vehicles could make up 35% of the road transport fleet, and two-thirds by 2050. These estimates are conservative, based on the assumption that breakthrough technologies will not emerge to permit photovoltaic cells and battery capacities vastly better (or cheaper) than today.
It follows logically that if you have heavily invested in fossil fuels, time is running out to realize a return on your investment. Buying a US administration tailored to maximize ROI while fighting a rear-guard action against action on climate change and roll-out of a new, rival energy infrastructure is therefore rational (in business terms).
It isn't possible for a US administration to make a ban on solar power and electric vehicles to stick globally. By its nature, solar will work well in equatorial regions, and these are where economic growth is currently focussed (China, India, and Africa all having huge population bases and demand for rapid roll out of infrastructure). Because PV is local, the need for capital-intensive centralized power stations and distribution grids is avoided: this will make it easier for Africa to catch up, just as the large-scale roll-out of telephony is sub-Saharan Africa has largely leap-frogged fixed wires and gone straight to cellular. Late adopters get better infrastructure.
Looking ahead, the carbon barons have to know that in 10-20 years time the USA will be stuck with obsolescent infrastructure and a loss of relative advantage if they pursue this course (although they, individually, will be a whole lot richer). What is to be done?
Let's consider the other strand of the Trump administration: white nationalist revanchism.
Without derailing into a close examination of the creed of this movement, I'm going to generalize by saying that the alt-right are overtly anti-muslim, anti-semitic from the grass roots up, and Steve Bannon is effectively setting foreign policy. (They're also anti- just about every minority group you can think of, including anyone who isn't neurotypical, able-bodied, conformist, and predictably supportive of their agenda.) Bannon believes in an existential war between Christendom and Islam; he doesn't believe in international institutions like the UN, NATO, or the EU (even though these were in most cases created by US foreign policy during the era of containment. What alliances the Bannon administration is building overseas are being made with extremists and neo-fascists. Trump appears to be attempting to destabilize Australian PM Turnbull, who is vulnerable to a back-bench challenge and is "soft" on immigration policy compared to such lunatics as Tony Abbott (his predecessor) or Pauline Hanson (and Australian immigration policy is an international disgrace). Trump seems to be happy to deal in France with Marine Le Pen, a court-confirmed fascist (she lost a libel case against a journalist who described her as such), or UKIP's former leader Nigel Farage (whose school habits included researching and singing old Hitler Youth drinking songs). And the authoritarian, homophobic strand in Russian politics is just another piece of the jigsaw.
To talk in terms of a white supremacist neo-fascist international doesn't seem extreme at this point. The fourteen signs of fascism are politically convenient to the carbon entrepreneurs. Fascism's disdain for facts plays well with climate change denial. It's elevation of nationalism above all other virtues helps anyone whose goal is to play divide-and-conquer, profiting by arbitrage of commodities trafficked across international borders (such as coal and oil and gas). And so, fascism is promoted and prospers under a carbon bubble bust-out regime.
But there's a more dangerous end-game on the horizon, once the oil men have packed their bags and retired to enjoy their riches.
Note that climate change denialism is a flag of convenience for the folks at the top. It's a loyalty oath and a touchstone: they don't necessarily believe it, but it's very convenient to fervently preach it in public if you want to continue to turn a profit.
If you believe in anthropogenic climate change but dare not admit it, you cannot be seen to do anything obvious to remediate it. But there is one remediation tactic you can deploy deniably: genocide.
We are on course to hit 10 billion people by the end of the 21st century, and although the second derivative of the curve of population increase is flat, our peak population won't begin to decline at this rate until well into the 22nd century. Estimates for the Earth's human carrying capacity vary and may be ideologically biased to support various conclusions; Malthusian ideas persist despite constant upward revision of the peak population. One thing is sure, for decades now other folks' population has been a political football. Thanks to the Green Revolution in agronomy we're well past the previously posited breakdown points of the 1960s.
I am going to posit that a foreign policy set by white supremacists in support of a carbon extraction regime is going to cleave to certain pseudo-scientific ideas, notably Social Darwinism (which isn't Darwinian, isn't social, and is fundamentally flawed as bad science) and Malthusianism (which has been used in the past as an excuse for tactics ranging from the innocuous--improving access to family planning and birth control--to the monstrous--conquest and genocide. And that last point brings us neatly round to Hitlerism.
While the gas chambers and extermination camps of the Final Solution get the most attention, people tend to forget that a large chunk of Hitler's plan for conquest, Generalplan Ost, relied in the short term on the Hunger Plan--to kill 20-30 million people in Eastern Europe and Russia by systematically stealing their food (to feed the Reich's own armies and slave workers who would be engaged in the enterprise of conquest)--and in the long term (post-war) on the systematic "removal" of 45 million more persons, nominally by exile into Siberia, but in practice probably by an extension of the already operating death camp system.
But the Neo-Nazi International won't need death camps in the 2020s to 2030s if their goal is to cut the world population by, say, 50%. Climate change and a clampdown on international travel will do the job for them.
Consider Bangladesh, and the Bay of Bengal fisheries collapse, not to mention the giant anoxic dead zone spreading in the By of Bengal (which means those fisheries won't be coming back for a very long time). There are nearly 170 million people there, mostly living on alluvial flood plains feeding into the gradually rising ocean. If the sea level rises by just one meter, 10% of the land area will be flooded; most of the country is less than 12M above sea level. It's a primarily agricultural economy (it's one of the main rice and wheat producing nations), heavily dependent on fisheries for protein to supplement the diet of its citizens.
Bangladesh can't survive the 21st century on this basis. It's vulnerable to devastating tropical cyclones bringing storm surges, and as the atmosphere heats, these are going to become more energetic. The loss of fisheries may cripple its ability to feed its population, even if temperature rises don't kill off the wheat and rice crops. Flood, famine, and storm look as if they will inevitably render a large part of the country uninhabitable within 50 years.
I see three possible responses:
A rational and humane response to this would involve attempts to: promote GM crops with increased heat resistance and increased bioavailable protein and micronutrient contents to repace the dying fisheries: promote female literacy, education, and access to healthcare (demographic transition correlates strongly with female education and emancipation): redeploy human capital to urban center construction in the northern highlands: invest in survival infrastructure (flood/weather shelters), and so on.
An unplanned, current-day response to this would be to provide ad-hoc famine relief and aid on demand, to wring hands when millions die in heat emergencies or super-cyclone storm surges, to prevent mass emigration by criminalization rather than by trying to make Bangladesh a more attractive place to stay, and so on. You know this scenario because we're living it today.
A white supremacist response to this would be to build a wall around Bangladesh--probably a "virtual" one patrolled by killer robots--and starve the inmates to death so they don't pump any more carbon into the atmosphere. After all, the residual carbon content of a dead foreigner is measured in single-digit litres.
All the pieces of the neo-Nazi solution to climate change already exist. Walls: look to the West Bank barrier or the Mexico-United States barrier for examples. Drones for border patrol are already a thing. The global crack-down on immigration by the developed world should need no introduction; there are loopholes (so called "Investor Visas") for anyone with six or seven digits in cash who wants to move freely, but these are generally out of the reach of even the western middle classes. (Free movement of labour as well as capital would defeat the core principle of arbitrage upon which economic imperialism depends.)
So here's what I expect to see if the alt-right get their way globally:
The obvious stuff (the agenda dictated by the fourteen signs of fascism) is a distraction
The real plan, in the short term, is to maximize the liquidation of capital investments in the carbon bubble on behalf of the principal shareholders
Once the carbon bubble has deflated, the angry and impoverished citizens of the first world will be pointed at a convenient scapegoat--foreigners overseas
A clampdown/shutdown on most international travel will ensue (hint: there's a reason Bannon et al hate the EU, and it's not economic: it's all to do with the bit about freedom of movement)
Tighter controls on "immigration", enforced out of sight by killer drones, will replace relatively permeable frontiers with exclusion zones enforced by bullets and bombs
Climate-change induced famine will replicate the intent of Hitler's "hunger plan", without the need for hands-on involvement by Western soldiers who might be traumatized by the requirement to shoot the surviving "living skeletons"
A systematic genocide of the Middle East and the Islamic world (hint: that's where the eliminationist rhetoric of the islamphobes leads if you follow it to its logical conclusion) will reduce Earth's human population by up to 30%: other culls elsewhere will be enforced by containment of would-be migrants and the primary tool of murder will be famine and lethal heat waves.
This will be presented to the citizens of the west as a "solution" to anthropogenic climate change for which they should be grateful, and framed as defending us from hordes of dark-skinned alien terrorists and asylum seekers who want to come to our lands and out-breed us and convert us to their weird and scary way of life and enslave our women (and you know the rest of this dismal litany of racism already, so I'll stop here).
Never say Nazis don't learn the lessons of history. This time round, the Final Solution to Anthropogenic Climate change will be entirely deniable! There are no gas chambers or Einsatzgruppen involved: any bullets will be fired by autonomous robots, without a human finger on the trigger, and will be an automatic reaction to an attempted border crossing, so not the fault of the perpetrators. The victims will have only themselves to blame, for being born in the wrong place, in the wrong century, and for failing to adapt, and for starving themselves, and for inviting the attention of the border patrol drones. It will be a slow-motion atrocity on a scale that dwarfs the Holocaust. And it is the logical conclusion of the policies our new fascist international overlords appear to be working towards implementing.
Please can you explain to me why I'm wrong to fear this outcome?
The only way this could all happen is if the rest of us keep bickering about how my political views being better than yours and we let them take away America away while we're busy arguing with each other. Come on everyone. Stop the us vs them mentality, and question the media when they present it in that manner.
Growing up, everyone knew everyone and no one locked their doors. My parents worked hard at their jobs in local grocery stores. We went on weekend fishing trips to the lake. But what I didn't realize was that somewhere within all of that—as has become increasingly true in communities like mine across America—were the seeds of addiction.
I'd always struggled to find where I fit: I had friends, but wasn't the most popular. I worked hard at school, but wasn't the smartest in my class. I played sports, but was never the MVP. I grew tired of mediocrity.
In 1993, when I was 12 years old, a new kid moved to our town. He was 16, and seemed rough, which was attractive. One day, I was looking out his window, watching the beautiful waterfalls that rushed in a nearby stream, when I turned around to see one of my friends sniffing something white off the coffee table.
I loved it immediately. While most girls my age were experimenting with makeup, I was rummaging in my dad's tool bin for a razor blade.
By 17, I was drinking, smoking weed, and snorting pills, plus experimenting with coke and hallucinogens. The addiction that haunted my father, whom I remembered constantly having a beer in his hand, had begun to sink its teeth into me.
I began selling drugs to support my own habit, and selling became an addiction unto itself. I thrived on the attention. As a kid, I had always been jealous of others. Now, finally, others wanted what I had.
Even an unexpected pregnancy didn't curb my use. My son was born in the summer of 2004 with neonatal abstinence syndrome. They took him out of my arms and carried him into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to ride out torturous withdrawal symptoms. I remember watching his tiny body tremble; I can still hear his small cries of pain. That's when I did the only thing I knew to do when feeling out of control and overwhelmed by emotions: I went to the NICU bathroom and got high on Oxycontin.
I loved my son, but my addiction made me completely oblivious to how I could be dangerous to him. I counted Oxycontin pills on his changing table; I took him with me to the places I bought and sold drugs. And he was in my arms the day I looked out my kitchen window and saw two officers from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency pulling into my driveway.
Still carrying my baby, I went into my living room and swallowed all the pills I had left. Minutes later, they arrested me for drug trafficking. I felt a strange sense of relief: My place in the world is finally clear, I thought to myself. I'm an addict. I'm an offender.
Over the next year, I cycled in and out of court, waiting to be sentenced. On June 15, 2005, I was arrested again, this time for violating my bail with continued drug use.
I had never actually been held in jail before.
I was caged in a tiny cell with bright fluorescent lights, with nothing to do but think about all the pain. I felt trapped and panicky. When I looked into the scratched mirror above the toilet, I thought, for the first time, of drug use as a problem, not a solution.
I spent the next three weeks in jail, forced to be sober for the first time in a decade. Then, to my surprise, the court offered me the opportunity to enter the Washington County Adult Drug Treatment Program, commonly known as drug court or treatment court. It required participants to undergo substance use treatment as well as individual and group therapy sessions; submit to frequent, random drug tests; appear before the judge on a regular basis; and get a job or perform community service.
My lawyer actually advised me against it. He doubted that I could make it through such a demanding program, which would last at least a year. He told me he thought I should just serve my 30-month sentence.
But I didn't want to miss the next two-and-a-half years of my son's life. So I opted in.
It was clear from Day One that treatment court would be nothing like what I was used to in the justice system. The courtroom no longer felt adversarial, and I didn't feel like just another number on a docket. The judge, lawyers, and law enforcement officers knew my name and cared about my status. Treatment providers were core members of the court team, making sure that each participant in the program received an individual assessment.
Perhaps I was a human being who had the potential to change, not just another lost cause in an epidemic.
Soon, I was attending treatment twice a week, traveling up to 90 miles round-trip to get there. I also attended support meetings every night, often missing out on tucking my son into bed. I faced the judge every week. The program engulfed my life, which was exactly what I needed.
Paradoxically, my recovery gave me the same feeling that I had been searching for those many years before, when I first picked up drugs. I had finally found a place in the world: showing others what is possible when we become willing, patient, and committed.
I successfully completed the program in 2006, intent on maintaining my sobriety. Back in the world and no longer under court supervision, I began working in a local medical center and obtained my state license as a substance use and addiction counselor. To do so, I had to disclose my record to the state licensing board.
In 2011, I met my husband, Brian. Our passion for recovery attracted us to one another. He too was free from the grip that addiction once held on him. We encouraged one another, not allowing ourselves to be fearful of sobriety.
Eventually, in 2012, I was asked to serve as the treatment provider for the very court program from which I had graduated. I had stood behind the podium as an addict, and now I was working alongside the same judge who presided over my own case.
On my eight-year sober anniversary, I approached him in his chambers. "Your Honor," I asked, "Do you remember where you were on this day eight years ago?"
He chuckled and said of course he didn't.
"I do," I said. "I was standing before you as a criminal defendant."
But there was one final hurdle: getting my felony charge pardoned. I knew it would be an uphill battle; pardons are rarely granted, and the probation officer who interviewed me said my case was unlikely to be selected by the governor's council to be heard.
In 2014, I traveled to the state Capitol, in Augusta. In front of an intimidating committee, I defended my application by bearing my soul. I refused to minimize the severity of my crimes, but I also refused to be ashamed of my recovery.
Several nerve-wracking weeks later, an official-looking letter arrived in the mail. Thanks to a treatment court program that allowed me and others in rural America to walk away from the justice system and into a life of health and recovery that I love, I no longer have a criminal record.
Abby Frutchey is the primary treatment provider for the Washington County Adult Drug Treatment Program in Maine. She is a certified clinical supervisor and speaks on recovery at conferences and college courses.