Food For Thought 10-10-08
Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.
Today I want to talk about the incident that happened with the inaugural flight from Shanghai last week. From what I understand, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency decided they were going to do a random check for drugs and decided that they would do it to the passengers on that flight. I’ve been told that the DEA agents were supervising local Customs agents and had them do the body searches on the passengers. And I’ve received statements from various Chinese business people relaying to me what the passengers told them they went through. It seems that some of them who spoke English tried asking what was going on, and why they were conducting the searches, but they weren’t given any answer. And it’s not like the search of the passengers was only conducted on random passengers, but nearly everyone on the flight was subjected to the searches. Not only were all their suitcases and bags thoroughly searched, but many of them were also subjected to strip searches, and many complained that they thought the way the strip searches were carried out was not only unnecessary but also very humiliating and demeaning.
I think it is important to establish a few things before moving on to some of my concerns. Did the Customs agents have the right to go through the tourist’s luggage and make sure they weren’t bringing in any prohibited items to the CNMI? Yes, they not only had the right to search the luggage, but they had an obligation to search it to make sure that there was no meat, plants or any other prohibited item being brought in illegally, whether intentionally or ignorantly. And it should be pointed out here that they confiscated many items that are not allowed to be brought into the CNMI. To realize the importance of a Customs agent doing their job properly, we don’t have to look any farther than the problem we have with the scarlet gourd. If a Customs agent had caught that when it was being smuggled in and confiscated it the way they should have, we wouldn’t have the problem with this runaway vine all over the island right now.
Then we also need to realize that the Drug Enforcement Agency has the right to try intercepting drugs before they come into the country. And they have also told us that they believe most of the crystal methamphetamine, or “ice” is being brought into the CNMI from China. But I believe there are a couple questions that would be prudent to ask here, such as, does the DEA have the right and authorization to strip search the majority of passengers on a flight coming from a country that they believe to be the primary supplier of ice to the CNMI? Was this truly just a “random” search and was it just a coincidence that this happened to be the inaugural flight from Shanghai?
Governor Fitial believes that the feds are just trying to hurt our tourism in retaliation for his lawsuit over extending federalization to our immigration system. Is it possible that there’s any truth to that theory, or is it just paranoia? Let’s just say I wouldn’t take it quite as far as he has, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t at least a bit of truth to it. Could it be that the federal government isn’t worried about messing with our image with Chinese tourists because they have no intention of giving visa waivers to Chinese tourists once they take over immigration? Could this be one of the first demonstrations of the federal government showing us how things will be once they have installed Homeland Security here and taken over immigration? Could the federal government be retaliating for the lawsuit that Governor Fitial filed against them for taking over our immigration? I honestly don’t have the answers to any of these questions, and I wouldn’t even know which way to guess about the truth at this point. I would certainly hope that the federal government wouldn’t be so petty, and I would hope that they would look at the big picture and what the consequences of such an action might be.
So will there be any consequences of this action? Was it handled as well as it could have been, or should have been? Yes, I believe there will be some very serious consequences. Let me ask you, if you had just traveled to a new place, and had to wait for 3 ½ - 4 hours in the middle of the night to get through the airport because you and most of the people you were traveling with had been strip searched, how would you feel? Would it put a damper on the rest of your vacation? What would you tell people when you got home about your vacation? And would you ever go back there and risk having the same thing happen again? Would you recommend the place as a good destination or would you warn people to not go there unless they wanted to be harassed and humiliated, and not be told what was going on? And do you think this is the kind of treatment China was expecting when they gave us Approved Destination Status? Do you think that status may be in jeopardy now as a result of this incident? When you are trying to grow a tourism market you need positive feedback and responses from the visitors, something like this can kill it for a long time to come if word gets around about what happened. And yes, the story has already been carried in the news in Shanghai and is quickly making the rounds of tour operators in Shanghai as well.
So where do we go from here, how do we keep from getting a reputation as a destination that no tourist wants to have to put up with? Can we sit down and talk with the Drug Enforcement Agency and make sure that when they do “random” searches in the future, it isn’t a case where it happens to something as important as an inaugural flight with several dignitaries on board? Would it be asking too much to have them have translators there explaining what is going on and putting the tourists minds at ease? Is there a standard for how many passengers get randomly strip searched? Shouldn’t there be some kind of good reason to go as far as a strip search? Should our government be meeting right now with Homeland Security to see what kind of requirements they are going to have when they have more of a presence here and start calling the shots? Are any of these departments even willing to meet with our government since our Governor has filed a lawsuit against the federal government?
There may have been some valid reasons for doing the searches, but the timing was horrible. You don’t start off with an inaugural flight like that from a new destination making an example of the passengers. You don’t delay the passengers by 3 ½ to 4 hours to leave the airport after arrival. And you don’t strip search the passengers without at least telling them what is going on and why they are being put through something like that. That is you don’t do things like that if you expect to have more tourists from that destination. We desperately need to have our government sit down with the federal government and work some of these issues out so that we don’t lose the last leg of our economy.
I can completely understand how the federal government might not be happy with the CNMI government, both the Executive and Legislative branches, but now is not the time to be getting in turf wars and letting tourism suffer as a result. The Chinese and Russian markets have been the brightest spots for the CNMI in the past year or two, but it won’t take many more incidents like this to destroy everything that has been gained in no time at all.
I really don’t have many answers in this particular situation, but have plenty of questions. These are questions we can’t afford to ignore, and that we’d better take very seriously if we value our Chinese tourists. As is always the case, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with me or not, what matters is that you think about the situation and then discuss it, seeing how it can be improved upon, and how we can learn from our mistakes in the past.
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I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.