I hadn’t recognized stolid forbearance as a national quality until I waited in a silent line of passengers that snaked back and forth over a concrete floor for over three hours at US Customs in Washington-Dulles International Airport. Date: Tuesday, 18 September 2018.
We arrived at IAD on a two-level Airbus A380-800, which can accommodate anywhere from 544 to 868 passengers, depending on the class seating configurations. Several other large groups of passengers arrived about the same time. Fifty booths for US customs officers stretch from one end of the room to the other in a solid line at Dulles. But only five agents were on hand to handle the thousands of passengers arriving. There were still hundreds of people standing in lines when I finally passed through customs three hours later, at about 7 PM.
Let’s put this in perspective. For us, US Customs provided a miserable end to a long day of travel. We left our Casablanca hotel at 4:30 AM for a departure at 7:40. We were in the air 3 hr. 5 minutes. We had a 1 hr 40 min layover in Paris, where we once again went through a security check. We were then in the air 8 hr. 25 minutes before arriving at Dulles International. That’s 11 ½ flying hours and about 4 ½ hours on the ground before arriving at IAD. The trip took 16 hours. Then we had to stand on concrete for over three hours waiting to pass through US Customs.
One thing a life-time love of travel has taught me is that you never complain to a Customs official. Never question them. Don’t make a fuss. You are silent and answer the question you are asked. And that’s what these hundreds upon hundreds of people did at IAD for over three hours.
You have to admire that kind of stolid forbearance. You don’t get any sense of it as a national quality from watching TV news or Hollywood movies. Physical action and verbal acuity are focused about as much as sex and violence by most media.
Keep in mind, the silent crowd allowed the wait. We all knew the alternative, and we chose complicity. Why?
Stolid forbearance covers fear
Fear lies at the bottom of such passivity. Customs officials have a great deal of power and can detain a person for simply mis-speaking or volunteering too much information.
Just think of the physical pain we shoveled under! Many of us were seniors and many around me were in wheel chairs. There were also small children, babies, and families. Can we get back in line if we try to find a toilet? What about our hunger and thirst? Plus the reality of aching backs and feet, the arthritic joints, the need to take medicine, the utter fatigue.
Then there’s the boredom.
Equally oppressive, we endured the overarching worry as to why all this was happening. No one ever told us why we were being treated this way. Couldn’t the customs authorities have communicated something during those hours? Explained the delays? Maybe even apologized? We were left to wonder if some kind of catastrophe had occurred? And what would happen to us if no one replaced the five Customs Officers at the end of their shift?
I’ve been treated with respect and dignity at every customs clearance I’ve encountered in dozens of countries around the world. They have done what they could to quickly expedite the needs of incoming travelers. So why not in my own country? What is wrong with us these days? It’s a sad commentary when the worst part of the trip is how you are treated by your home country.
I’m not suggesting we should have rioted. But on the other hand, passive compliance isn’t always a virtue.