Friday, January 1, 2010

Tough bureaucratic questions

As part of being able to come to the US for the year, we had to go through the procedure to apply for the necessary J1 and J2 visas which required obtaining DS2019 forms, SEVIS payments, queuing in the US consulate in Melbourne and not losing our I-94 docket. In the process, we needed appropriate photos (of which, yes, there is an app for that) and to fill out forms which I managed to complete in a speedy 8 hours.

Those forms were interesting. They required detailed listings of our previous trips to the US, schools we attended, who we think we are married to, etc. But the fun part was the list of questions they ask you for 'security' reasons: have we committed crimes, taken drugs,  engaged in money laundering (well, we have put money in the wash!), assisted in genocide, or engaged in prostitution (that one only over the last 10 years). It also asked whether I had renounced the United States. I hadn't but I had cursed it alot while filling in the form.

These questions were easy for most of our family but then we got to these ones:
Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?
Now my 11 year old daughter thought this question was ridiculous on the grounds that surely if the actual answer to that question was 'yes' you would answer 'no'. I pointed out that they may just be targeted in the ruthlessly honest terrorists but failed to convince her on the merits of this investigation.

The trickier issue, however, was that the question was a bit vague. What are 'terrorist activities'? One option was to go with some popular notion (such as that given by Fox News) but I was pretty sure that the US government had something else in mind; namely, Wikipedia. Here is what it said:
Terrorism is the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.
That seemed useful but then they went on:
At present, there is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism. Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for an ideological goal (as opposed to a lone attack), and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (civilians).
Now, on any ground, it seemed that most of my family could safely not be considered to have engaged in terrorist activities (and remember they asked it individually of each one of us). But what about our 5 year old daughter? There is hardly a week that goes by whereby she does not engage in an act (some form of tantrum) intended to create fear with effectively the sole purpose being coercion (usually of one or more of the rest of us). This is based on her ideology (that she is, or at least ought to be, the centre of the universe) and usually shows disregard for non-combatants. Dealing with this has involved proportionate response but also wounds. And I don't think she has any intention of curtailing these activities while in the United States.

Coming back to the question, with respect to her, there is some degree of ambiguity. So what did I put down as the answer? Well, 'no.' After all, it is a pretty silly question. And you should know that at no stage did any security appear to explore our answer in greater depth. I suspect thousands of similar would-be problems are entering the US daily.