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Seaport Security And Other Fairy Tales

by Harry Stamper

Security can't be purchased at any price
(PNS) -- I was driving along in my car when news of the Senate vote came over the radio. They voted 95-0 for legislation requiring America's 361 seaports to develop security plans.

I'm a longshoreman who works in a small port in Oregon. The radio said the bill will establish "secure areas" at ports; workers in such areas will undergo background checks and carry identification cards. A "maritime intelligence system" within the Coast Guard will collect information on vessels and their cargoes and crews.

I'm skeptical. After all, what are they going to do about me and Ricky Provido?

I first saw Ricky across the deck of a log ship loading out of Coos Bay, Ore. Our eyes met with the mischievous familiarity of young men everywhere when they find themselves enmeshed in a situation so crazily beyond their control they can only laugh and silently ask each other where they bought their disguises.

We were loading logs aboard the Sea Light, a Philippine cargo ship bound for China. We were carefully placing each load so a summer's worth of work for a timber company in Oregon could be lashed tight enough to make it through the waiting ocean storms as the ship plowed through the waves to its destination.

My job was to signal the placement of the load, and then to unhook the heavy slings that were used to lift the logs. Ricky's job was to make sure I did it right. He was the Third Officer on the Sea Light, and he would be the one awakened in the monsoon darkness of the open sea if the cargo started to shift, or the thick lashing cable snapped like a worn-out shoelace.

Our supervisors watched from the ship's bridge like battle commanders checking their troops through heavy lenses. We understood they couldn't see the holes in the load, or know if the logs were tight against the restraining stanchions.

After a short time Ricky and I began to talk. He was an Officer in the Philippine Navy who held two college degrees and spoke three languages. He had earned the certification papers for captain and was capable and licensed to pilot the ship we were working on. He owned a home in Manila, where he provided food and shelter for eight members of his family, including his mother and several cousins. He was working his way up the promotion ladder, waiting for vacancies to occur in the company hierarchy.

Ricky and I spent the afternoon break sitting in his cabin looking at pictures of his family. He mentioned how much he loved music and took me to the main dining area to show me some stars painted on the floor. Each star carried the name of a crew member in the ship's band. The instruments lined the walls, a sorry array of broken strings and taped-together drums. I told them I was a guitar player and was promptly invited to dinner as an honored guest.

We had a wonderful dinner, with much laughter and many stories, and we played music until early evening. We sang the Beatles in Spanish, and I passed my beautiful guitar around.

I left just as the summer sun was setting, bathing the deserted dock in slanted, golden light.

As I walked to my car, I realized the guitar case in my hand could contain contraband of a hundred different kinds. My intentions were not even in that hemisphere, but I suddenly knew that any paranoid, over-zealous protector of our soil could have read any horror story they could think of into my actions.

There is no way that waterfront security, or any security for that matter, can be broken down into a formula that will take into account my relationship with the officers and crew of the Sea Light. The leaders of this country are actually convincing people that every rivet can be checked, every fuel tank measured for verification, every sailor in the world authenticated and every enemy discovered.

It can't be done, no matter how much money we spend. We need a system of defense, and we need policies that strengthen our purpose, our very resolve as a democratic people. But we can't do it with the ghost of Joe McCarthy haunting the centers of our lives and hearts. Our government is asking us for acceptance of a new kind of seaport security in exchange for a lessening of our ability to live our lives on the docks as we have long done, in a way that has worked.

I don't think it's much of a bargain, and neither does Ricky Provido. He's somewhere down south, last I heard.

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Albion Monitor November 22 2002 (

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