International Falls, Minnesota and Baghdad, Iraq have a lot in common, oddly enough. Both are weird places to be fighting the war on terror.
If you know about International Falls, it's probably from the weather reports since the town on the border of Minnesota and northwest Ontario is the coldest place in the lower 48 on most winter days (not to slight Fargo). The Falls was also the home of Bronko Nagurski.
The border between Canada and the U.S. in this region is the Rainy River. International Falls is connected to its sister city, Fort Francis by a short bridge. A paper mill has factories on both sides, connected by huge pipes and rail tracks. Most people who cross the bridge are locals going shopping or to work. The rest are carrying fishing rods. I've been carrying fishing rods over that bridge for almost forty years. Times have changed, without improvement.
If you arrive in International Falls on the puddle jumper from Minneapolis, your first greeting is a flyer warning that bridge crossings on the way back from Canada can take over two hours. They're not kidding. I'm told that on summer weekends, two hours can be a good day. I passed through on a recent Monday afternoon with a friend and two 10-year-olds (actually, Taylor, who caught his first muskie, is 11). We needed passports for the kids to prove we weren't child snatchers. And we vowed we weren't carrying tobacco, firearms, drugs, smuggled fish or weapons of mass destruction. We waited in line for half an hour.
It wasn't like that when I was a 10-year-old. There weren't waits and kids didn't need passports. It wasn't like that four years ago, before 9/11.
I wonder how many terrorists have been snagged on that bridge. For hundreds of miles going both east and west, there is nothing but wilderness on both sides of the slender Rainy River. You could build a pontoon bridge and no one would notice. No serious smuggler or terrorist would drive over that bridge. This is not real protection or real homeland security. This is the illusion of protection that has become an entrenched bureaucratic habit.
It is also a substantial burden on individuals. If the customs agent doesn't like the look on your face, you can be pulled over and they'll search every rod case, tackle box and sleeping bag. They don't care if you miss your flight or an afternoon's fishing. Homeland security, you know.
For people heading to the airport, that's hardly the end of the agony. The International Falls airport is not a vast compound. There are eight flights a day in and out of the airport that has one gate – otherwise known as a door. Since 9/11, every flight I have taken out of the Falls has been late and always for the same reason: the TSA screeners take so long that all the passengers are never through at departure time. The screening always starts about 15 minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave and the screeners there make a big city gastroenterologist look like a piker. One inspector took apart my son's Lego creation. Another held up the brass money clip my grandfather left me to his supervisor and asked, "You OK with this?"
I have asked that supervisor three times why they don't start screening earlier and I have received three different answers: because they can't screen until the incoming plane lands, because they can't screen until they have inspected all the checked luggage and all three inspectors are needed to do both tasks and because regulations prohibit them from screening before 20 minutes prior to takeoff, even though people go through security at big airports way before that all the time.