Although I myself had not crossed the Atlantic for a decade, people do it all the time. So I expected it to be a long day, but also straightforward.
Imagine my surprise then to find myself sitting on a yellow line on a marble tiled floor waiting for the national computer system that controls Border and Custom Protection across the United States to be fixed.
I was not alone. Over 500 people were behind me in the non-moving queue. I was right at the front – at the yellow line when the system went down.
The computer breaking is, of course, the ultimate cause of a disheartened shrug from anyone who looks like they might be an authority figure. The fact that it is the national system only makes the shrug both more emphatic and deflecting.
What surprised me most was that the first four hours were so orderly and calm. It was about that time that bottles of water appeared. Far fewer than the number of people in the hall. By then it was, according to the time zone in which the people in the queue had woken up, well past midnight.
Over those four hours many other people had been processed though the system: American citizens and those with good old fashioned Visas. Then they let the Canadians in. The rest of us had registered in advance with ESTA, the ‘electronic system for travel authorisation’. They already had all the data on us; but were not going to be satisfied until our fingerprints were taken and digitally stored. And that’s the bit that wasn’t working.
Sitting on the floor and reading Emerson’s essay on Henry David Thoreau, I couldn’t help but wonder what that stern old solitary would have made of this scenario. It would of course have been absurdly unimaginable from the peace of Walden Pond. But you don’t need to go back that far to make this a nightmare beyond our dreams.
And that’s the horror of it. In the good old days you might have had a problem when a clerk ran out of ink for their stamp, or broke the nib of their pen. That would slow things down for a while, but the problem would be solved locally and quickly.
The big issue here is not that 500 + people should have been offered water before four hours, or that it more like five before any hint of a snack appeared – a rather nice granola bar, in fact. Nor is the issue that people were so calm and relaxed in their queuing and waiting.
After 4 hrs and 40 minutes, and increasingly nervy announcements (which were now being greeted by a little jeering) saying ‘we are working on it’, someone took the decision to let us all into the US without being finger-printed. At last we were free to enter the land of the free.
It was quite an experience; quite a ‘welcome’. The worry though is the extent to which the computer going down created a logistical problem no one could solve.
That’s today’s world: big systems and focused risk. Great when it works.
But what’s plan B?