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Russell: Confessions of a presumed terrorist

Too many years ago, I attended my 25th Not High School Reunion in Bristow, Okla. ;'Not High School'' because I am a sort of honorary Purple Pirate, having left high school in the ninth grade to join the service and save Saigon from the Viet Cong, who I was convinced would then take Sausalito and Sallisaw.

I saw the lady who had been the principal of Edison Elementary School, where I had gotten sent to the office so many times. She looked exactly as I remembered her from the '50s - older than dirt. I walked up and spoke to her:

''You probably don't remember me, but ...''

''Hello, Stephen,'' she interrupted, ''how is Wanda?'' That would be my mother, who this woman had also taught.

I'm an urban Indian now, but those who grew up on reservations or in places like that little town in the Creek Nation will remember how everybody knew everybody's business. There was no way my one-eighth blood quantum would allow me to play white boy if I was so inclined, and no way to escape whatever I had coming for my numerous malfeasances. No place to run and no place to hide. Same thing when visiting relatives in the Cherokee Nation or over on the Osage reservation. Just mentioning my name connected me in ways not avoidable.

Did ''privacy'' have any meaning then? I've done a lot of thinking about that since I moved away and changed my name and gained briefly the possibility of being anonymous.

Yes, it did have some meaning. We may have known everybody's business, but we had sense enough to stay out of it. We had bootleggers when Oklahoma was dry, and it's not like we didn't know who they were. People more or less got away with extramarital affairs, and each little town had some ladies who would provide sex for money without ever walking the streets.

I said that I ditched school after the ninth grade. In fact, I did not really finish the sixth or the eighth grades, either. I was hiding in the Bristow Public Library most of the time. Did I think the librarian did not know me or my age? Not a chance. But I caused her no trouble and she caused me none, and I got my education reading books by the shelf in no particular order while everybody else my age that was not working on a farm went to classes.

Where there is no privacy, there is a strong live-and-let-live ethic. I hope the country remembers that as the legal privacies we have enjoyed crumble in the face of the so-called war on terror.

I used to run on and off commercial airliners at will because I had a wife working for Southwest and a daughter working for Delta. I flew everywhere. Now, it's a burden to set foot in an airport as a paying customer. I don't know if there really is ''somebody with my name'' on the secret terrorist watch list or the person is really me because I have criticized the government so often, but I cannot get advance boarding passes and I always get very special treatment when screened. Now I hear that there will be ''random'' searches of bus and train passengers, who will be required to carry photo identification like airline passengers.

Starting next year, American citizens will be required to carry passports for day trips into Mexico or Canada. I wonder how this will affect those Indian nations that span the border, where the northerners have spelled-out rights under the Jay Treaty and the southerners have implied rights under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Indian nations, after all, antedate Canada, Mexico and the United States.

I remember being asked to ''state my citizenship'' when returning from Mexico and answering ''Cherokee Nation.'' Today that would probably get me a body cavity search.

Just last month, I sold my house here in Indiana in anticipation of retiring and moving to be with my kids and grandkids. I had a sum of money that it seemed wise to put in an interest-bearing account until I was able to put it down on a retirement house.

The Dutch Internet bank that owned my online brokerage account was advertising 3.5 percent, which is not too shabby these days. I spent a full week trying to identify myself well enough to comply with what the bank thought the USA PATRIOT Act required. I went ballistic when they asked me the birthday of my deceased wife, although my current wife was much calmer when they questioned her about the mother of her ex-husband from more than 10 years ago.

The final upshot was that they wanted a copy of my Social Security card, which is not something I remember carrying around. However, when I was moving the card turned up tucked in my passport, so I faxed it to the bank, circling the language on the card that said ''not to be used for identification'' and scrawling an anti-USA PATRIOT rant on the copy. I also copied my passport for them while I was at it, but they still denied me an account. I guess I was a terrorist for savings account purposes but not brokerage account purposes.

Then my wife noticed the bank that held the mortgage we had just paid off had an online savings account with 3 percent interest. We spent another week trying to get past USA PATRIOT with them. They were satisfied with our identities but not with our address. It seems we had just moved. Well, yes. That's where we got the money we were trying to stash, and they had the mortgage. So sorry, left hand does not talk to right hand, but you may reapply for an account in 30 days if you are at the same address.

Good grief! We wound up at the University of Texas Credit Union, where I have had an account since law school, at 2.8 percent. I was able to transfer the funds electronically from the Indiana University Credit Union in one day. I never liked banks, anyway.

There is something peculiarly impersonal about the modern lack of privacy. I remember when I was a traffic court judge intervening for an Indian who was born on the reservation and had no birth certificate and was being denied a driver's license. I don't think I could swing that today, judge or not. I can't even put my money in a bank. We can't travel or work without subjecting ourselves to the panoptic vision of the government or our employers or both. I saw on TV the other day that some employers are requiring employees to have identifying chips embedded in their skin like the ones we inject in our pets to help them come home. And we thought it was bad to have to pee in a jar while somebody watched?

The bottom line is that being watched in a personal manner did not bother me. Being watched in an impersonal manner does.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University - Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today.