The Unwelcome Mat

(También en Español)

News of Note: The Unwelcome Mat: How America Scares Away Tourists

Imagine that you’re the citizen of a prosperous, democratic ally like Britain, Spain or Japan, and you’d like to visit America. Before traveling, you must pay $14 to complete an online United States government form called ESTA, short for Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

ESTA asks for basic personal data, like your name and birth date. It also asks whether you are guilty of “moral turpitude,” whether you’re planning crimes or “immoral activities” and whether you suffer from “lymphogranuloma venereum” (don’t ask). If you’re involved in terrorism or genocide — and for some reason you’ve decided to take this opportunity to inform the United States government — there’s a box for that. And if you’re a spy — a particularly artless one — please let us know.

Naturally, no one with anything to hide will answer honestly. Such purposeless questions recall Thoreau — “I saw that the State was half-witted” — and should astonish Americans, who know better than their government how to welcome guests.

I’m trying to rationalize why the US Government exposes foreign visitors to all this arbitrary intimidation. It’s embarrassing, xenophobic, and only manages to make America look bad to the rest of the world.

I’m not suggesting less security, only practicality. America’s anti-social attitude is bursting out through the bureaucracy and doing more harm than good. How can we eradicate policies like this one, born of the same tendencies that lead to discrimination within our own country?