This article was written on 23 Oct 2013, and is filled under Actualities.

“Today I was refused entrance to the U.S.” Ilija Trojanow and U.S. Securitarianism

On the morning of Monday, September 30, 2013, the acclaimed German writer and translator Ilija Trojanow was checking in at the airport in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil for a flight to Miami. From there he planned to travel to Denver to attend an academic congress and deliver a keynote address.  But he would not make it to his plane. At the check-in counter, “Trojanow” was flagged by the computer for reasons of “Border Crossing Security.” An official appeared, took Trojanow’s passport, and retreated. After a half-hour of cross-checking and data-gathering by several high-ranking employees, Trojanow was told that his entry into the US had been denied.  Here is Trojanow’s own account in German and in English.

No reasons were given by airline or security officials for this denial. When Trojanow asked the attendant at the check-in counter how often this degree of scrutiny materializes, he was told:  “Yours is a special case.” According to Trojanow’s account published in a prominent German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), he had a valid ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). Calls by the President of the Goethe-InstitutePEN, Reporters Without Borders, and German officials asking for an explanation have so far gone unanswered.

Discussion of the case in the German media was instantaneous and, for several days, unceasing: Spiegel Online reported on the same day that Trojanow had texted his publisher: “Today I was refused entry to the US. And now a long trip home.” Already the following day, the FAZ published in its online-edition a report that Trojanow wrote while in the Brazilian airport.  By contrast, in the US only the Huffington Post, Slate, and, more recently, Counterpunch, have noted Trojanow’s mysterious entry-denial.

However, there are reasons for why the apparent travel ban should concern more than the 900 or  attendees of an academic congress.  Trojanow has written extensively and very critically about the U.S. and German obsession with security and surveillance over the past five years. These writings culminated in Angriff auf die Freiheit: Sicherheitswahn, Überwachungsstaat und der Abbau bürgerliche Rechte (Freedom under Attack: Securitarianism, Surveillance State, and the Dismantling of Civil Rights), a book he co-authored with fellow novelist Juli Zeh in 2009, right around the time when Edward Snowden had begun working for the private contractor Dell at a secret US military facility in Japan.

It was perhaps Zeh’s and Trojanow’s response to the Snowden revelations four years later that made their names stand out yet further. On July 26, 2013, they published an open letter to Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, in the FAZ. In this document, translated below and signable here, Trojanow and Zeh, together with over forty prominent German writers, and a list of signatures that now numbers more than 75,000, call on Chancellor Merkel to formulate a strong response to the surveillance and wire-tapping revelations. It was delivered to the German government on September 18 and has yet to receive an official response. But in being denied the ability to board a plane in Brazil he seems to have received an unofficial response. This is the consequence that Klaus-Dieter-Lehmann, President of the Goethe-Institute, has drawn:

One doesn’t have to think long to come to the conclusion that Trojanow’s engagement against international surveillance structures was a catalyst for this incident. All the worse! Many do not believe themselves to be affected by the loss of autonomy brought about by the siphoning of personal data, especially in the context of national security issues. But this is a mistake! This issue will directly and pervasively affect our ability to live together. It will have an enduring influence on our cultural and societal relations and an impact on our ability to express ourselves freely. Ilija Trojanow and other authors fulfill an important role in that they give us room for dialogue.

“Perhaps Trojanow’s case may turn out to have been the smoking gun.”

Back in Denver, Trojanow’s absence was notable for the German Studies Association (GSA), the international association of graduate students and faculty from across the humanities and social sciences that had invited him to give one of the keynotes and–ironically, it turns out–to participate in a panel on transnationalism. According to Trojanow,the leadership of the GSA was “extremely angry” in the aftermath of the entry-denial, and they wrote a strong letter to their membership expressing dismay at the situation. At the conference itself there was much interest in his case. Anonymous supporters disseminated protest stickers that could be seen on hundreds of participant name-badges. Trojanow’s luncheon reading of EisTau (Melting Ice), a fictional work about a dejected glaciologist employed as a lecturer on a cruise ship in the Antarctic, had been cancelled. In its place was a panel of security experts and an intermittent Skype-feed of Trojanow from somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic.

The atmosphere in the banquet room was closer to the cold war than the era of global warming documented in EisTau. What transpired was a perfect exhibition of the vast discrepancy of sensibility between members of the security apparatus (even well-meaning ones) and an intelligentsia concerned with the effects of mass surveillance. Alarmingly, the security experts persisted in making precisely the arguments for “trade-offs” between security and freedom that Trojanow and Zeh had dismantled in Attack on Freedom. (Trojanow was able to respond at length, thankfully, not unlike Glenn Greenwald’s recent face off with BBC journalist Kirsty Wark.) Even their concession that Trojanow’s case may turn out to have been “the smoking gun” of security overreach seemed remarkably credulous, given the unprecedented prosecution of US whistleblowers under the Obama administration, the recent detention of Greenwald’s partner David Miranda under Schedule 7 of the UK 2000 Terrorism Act, and the increasing criminalization of dissent worldwide.

This hasn’t been the first time Trojanow has encountered difficulty in trying to enter the US. Last year, he was eventually first denied, and then begrudgingly granted a work visa for a position as Visiting Professor at the Washington University in St. Louis only after the university made a concerted protest against its withholding. The semester had started before he was finally allowed to arrive. Increasingly, the obstruction of Trojanow’s travel to the U.S. appears to be one of censorship. This is devastating, given that in 1971 he and his family fled across the Iron Curtain from their home in Bulgaria to find political asylum in Germany. An ideal panelist on the topic of transnationalism, Trojanow has lived in, and written extensively about, Nairobi, Mumbai, Bombay, Paris, Munich, and Cape Town. He had spent four weeks in Salvador-Bahia for the Goethe-Institut’s City Writer project, just prior to being denied entrance to his plane.

“It’s A Farce”

To be sure, Trojanow realizes his case is not extraordinary. He is not an unskilled worker with no means in his home country, and he is not seeking protection from certain retribution for having collaborated with US military invaders. Yet there are reasons why his apparent travel ban should raise more concern in the U.S. Does raising questions about NSA surveillance activity suffice to get a name flagged? Or perhaps it takes publishing a critique of securitarianism? Writing a letter to your elected officials?

In his recent film Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill interviews an anonymous source in the State Department regarding the rapid growth of JSOC, a secretive special-ops squadron that has conducted raids, strikes, and targeted assassinations in over 75 countries. In a telling statement, the source says that with JSOC,

“We’ve created one hell of a hammer. And for the rest of our lives, we’ll be looking for nails.”

The similarly precipitate expansion of NSA resources and powers has created another hungry monster. These kinds of cases suggest that it will only become increasingly difficult for the security apparatus to distinguish between enemy combatants, critics of foreign policy, journalists and civil-rights activists. In her immediate response, Juli Zeh inveighs against Trojanow’s encounter with securitarianism:

“Its a farce. Pure paranoia. People who push for civil-rights are being treated as enemies of the state.”

According to the security experts, the main problem is trying to decide how much freedom we are willing to sacrifice for security, and if we are uncomfortable with the current balance, we should write our congressmen and they can check potential overreach. What this naive logic fails to grasp is that a “situation in which “millions are under suspicion” ” and in which the apparatus can no longer distinguish dissent from existential threat is not one in which it is appropriate to speak of freedom. Trojanow did write his elected official and he was reduced to an unwanted person.


In Attack on Freedom, Zeh and Trojanow remark on a curious figure of speech. In German it is often said that caprice dominates (“Willkür herrscht). For them this turn of phrase encapsulates the inherent violence in certain relations of power: where hegemony dominates, so too does the threat of unbounded caprice and rule by whimsy. Unfortunately, Trojanow and millions of others experience this everyday when there are “no reasons given” for their travel restrictions and for the search and seizure of data from private correspondence. Zeh and Trojanow argue that one of the primary concerns for the democratic revolutionaries of the Enlightenment was to halt the whimsical abuse of power. Their own strategy for halting these abuses is articulated in a number of articles, books, and petitions, including the one below.


Postscript: Juli Zeh’s Open Letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel                               (translated by Josh Alvizu)

Dear Madame Chancellor,

Since Edward Snowden made public the existence of the PRISM-Program, the German media have been covering the largest surveillance scandal in the history of the Federal Republic. Through the press coverage of this scandal, we citizens are finding out that foreign intelligence services are tapping into our telephone calls and electronic communications without specific or reasonable grounds for suspicion. Our contacts, friendships, and relationships are being recorded through the storage and analysis of meta-data. Our political views, our “movement profiles”, even our everyday moods and emotions are transparent for the security apparatus.

“Big Brother” has thus become a reality.

We are unable to defend ourselves. There is no opportunity to voice legal complaint and no right to examine the files they have on us. Whereas our private lives have been made transparent, the security services claim the right to maximal “in-transparency” when it comes to their methods. In other words, we are experiencing a historic attack upon our constitutional democracy: namely, the principle whereby one is presumed innocent until proven guilty is being transformed into one where millions are under universal suspicion.

Mrs. Chancellor, in your summer press conference you said that Germany is not a surveillance state.” Given the Snowden-revelations, we must  say: but unfortunately, it is. In the same context, you summarized your approach to the clarification the PRISM affair in one telling statement: “I’d prefer to wait and see.”

But we do not wish to wait and see. The impression is growing that the actions of the American and British intelligence services are looked upon with approval by the German government. Therefore, we ask you: is it politically desirable for the NSA to conduct surveillance on German citizens in a way that would be illegal for the German authorities to do so, according to both our legal code and the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht)? How can the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) utilize the NSA spy-program XKeyscore, for which there is no legal basis, in the surveillance of search engines? Is the federal government simply circumventing the rule of law instead of defending it?

We call upon you to tell the people of our nation the whole truth about these intrusions of electronic surveillance. And we want to know what the federal government intends to do in response. The constitution requires you to protect German citizens from harm. Madame Chancellor, what does your strategy look like?

July 25, 2013

Juli Zeh

Ilija Trojanow

[& 75,000 others]

A note on German terms:

Bundesverfassungsgericht, somewhat akin to the US Supreme Court, possesses the power of judicial review.

(BND) Bundesnachrichtendienst, the German foreign intelligence agency, akin to the CIA, directly subordinate to the Chancellor’s Office.

(BfV) Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, the German domestic intelligence agency, akin to the FBI, subordinate to the Interior Ministry (Bundesministerium des Innern).

Article written by Josh Alvizu and Jason Groves



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