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The border mentality

ONE TIME, a US Customs official sent a chill through me, and I feel it still. We were returning from a ski trip to Canada. At the border, the official was brusque as he interrogated me. To my horror, I realized that I had neglected to declare a purchase made at the ski resort, and he seemed to sense it. He began a rough search of our car. His rudeness prompted me to say at one point: ''You can't treat me like this. I have rights. I am an American."

He looked at me coldly. ''You're not in America yet, Bub. You don't have rights until I say you do." I felt humiliated, but instructed. A border by definition is the territory of absolute power, and such power by definition demeans.

I thought of that encounter last Thursday when I learned that a distinguished leader of the Islamic community in London was refused admittance into the United States at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Zaki Badawi is an Egyptian-born scholar, the principal of the Muslim College in London, which trains imams and Islamic leaders, emphatically preparing them to build bridges with British culture. Holding a doctorate from the University of London, Badawi has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth, has served as an adviser to Tony Blair, and is co-editor of an interfaith magazine with an archbishop and a chief rabbi. He is in his 80s.

Badawi was en route to the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, where he was to give a major address on the compatibility of Islam and Western culture. But on Wednesday evening, US border officials at JFK detained the elderly scholar for six hours, then put him on a plane back to England. Rejected.

As it happened, I was at Chautauqua as part of a program exploring the common roots of the three Abrahamic religions. Those waiting to welcome Badawi included Muslims, Jews, and Christians. All were stunned by news of his banishment. I do not know what, precisely, prompted the border officials' action, but I am certain that the humiliation Badawi suffered will be felt by every British Muslim who learns of it. Power at the border demeans, and in today's context, resentment, too, can be absolute.

The incident is a telling one. If a Muslim of Zaki Badawi's stature can be treated so contemptuously, imagine what the legion of anonymous Muslims face at the burgeoning network of checkpoints, security barriers, and borders that now define daily life. Not so long ago, when American astronauts beamed back to Earth images of a borderless blue planet hanging in the dark void of space, it seemed that a new, transnational ideal of life on this planet was within reach. Borders had been so bloody, with countless wars fought to move them, or protect them. The horrors of the 20th century cried out for an end to all that, and here it was.

Suddenly, the nation-state itself seemed ready to undergo a kind of relativizing, human beings having learned the hard way that more unites our species than divides it. Power, therefore, need not define our encounters. The borderless blue planet was a moral vision, but it had economic and political aspects, as information technologies increasingly reduced the old frontiers of tribe and state and closed economy to irrelevance. In Europe, especially, this dream began to be realized, as borders were first mitigated, then removed. The Iron Curtain itself melted away. Power, at last, to the people.

No more. Borders are back, and so is the demeaning exercise of power. From airports to office buildings, entry-point intimidation is everywhere. Europe is retreating from the humane vision it embraced, and one easily foresees the return of piked roadways across the continent. In the United States, traditional openness to immigrants gives way to suspicion, newly focused on a certain category of outsider.

Muslims as such are a culture-wide target now, but at thresholds all are suspect. Therefore everyone submits before faceless functionaries empowered to declare, in effect, ''You don't have rights until I say you do."

All of this has been done in the name of a prudential response to terrorism, associated with a global war against certain Muslim groups and individuals. The nightmare is that such villains will cross our borders and do something horrible to us. The reality, meanwhile, is that by raising barriers where humiliations of power insult everyone, but especially Muslims, we have already done something horrible to ourselves.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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