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Monday, April 15, 2013

A Libertarian In Paris, Part I: An Evening Of Ridicule and Unprofessionalism Courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security

Note: This is the first in a series that will wind up being as long as it takes for me to run out of ideas. As with everything else on this blog, what you are about to read actually happened, but the names were changed to either protect the innocent or because I forgot. 

I spent a lovely ten days with my two favorite people, Muffy and The Lady, and while Muffy will be traveling around Europe on her own for the rest of spring break, The Lady and I had to return to the US. We arrived at Newark Airport around 7:00 PM last night aboard a horrible United Airlines plane and strode confidently through the arrivals terminal to passport control.

Imagine my delight at having my
passport seized by a kid who's goal
in life is to be The Situation.

At passport control we were commanded to come forward by a DHS (Department of Homeland Security) officer who looked like his audition to be The Situation on the Jersey Shore didn't pan out so he had
relied on his back-up plan to be an officious civil servant instead. The Jersey-style spikey black hair and the over-abundance of cheap cologne warned us that our border agent was not to be trifled with, especially if there were going to be shots of Jagermeister later on.

Here's our interaction:

Officer The Situation: What was the purpose of your travel?
Me: Vacation.
Officer The Situation: With who?
Me: Well, my wife. (I point thumb to the right in the general direction of The Lady)
Officer The Situation: Have you been married before? 

Wait. What?

Me: Yes, but it ended in like 1987.
Officer The Situation: Okay, come with me. Ma'am you can wait out there. (Officer The Situation beckoned us to follow him and upon reaching a doorway he motioned for my wife to keep moving toward baggage claim while he escorted me to a holding room)

This is probably a good time to mention that since 1987 I have traveled outside of, and re-entered, the United States around 25 times, most recently in 2011.

Officer The Situation took my passport and threw it in a paperwork basket on top of a desk and told me to sit down. At this point I had not been given an explanation for any of this.

The room I was brought to was a yellow, cinder block bunker affair with about 30 chairs on one side and a desk for four DHS officers on the other. The room was shabby, the furniture beat-up, and the television loudly blaring America's Funniest Home Videos. The most striking thing about the room was the height of the desk the DHS officers sat behind: Three steps up to a total height of about 6 feet above the floor of the room. Basically, the DHS officers were sitting as judges in a courtroom where due process was not in effect.

There I sat. My passport seized with no explanation. Ten minutes passed. I wondered what horrible crime I had committed that had caused the entire might of the Federal Government to fall on me without explanation. I'd had my passport seized three times before, in foreign countries, and this instance was just as unnerving. There were three other people in the room with me; I was the only American.

  • Was I a cocaine mule coming in from Colombia, I asked myself? Nope, I answered confidently. 
  • Did I have a bomb strapped to my cup? Look, I'm no religious zealot. If I was going to stick a bomb in my underwear I’d be sure to wear a cup to minimize collateral damage. I crossed and uncrossed my legs. No bomb. 
  • Had offended the French somehow? Being pissed about a mouse in a fancy French restaurant was surely not going to cause an international scene, was it? 
  • Do Janet Napolitano and Barack Obama read this blog and had they finally found a way to shut me up? This one actually seemed plausible when weighed against all of the other possibilities, but, no.

Thirty minutes passed and the humor faded.The DHS officers in the room spent far more time talking to each other doing that goofing-around-in-the-office crap that the unprofessional little kids at the Radio Shack and Burger King do all the time. The fact that myself, an American citizen, and the three non-citizens were being held and scoffed at without a decent explanation or chance to question the authority holding us was not important to these officers of the law.

There were four officers, from left to right:

1.     Officer Subway was proudly gnawing on a 6” Subway sandwich of unknown protein on Italian bread. He had a bag of Lay’s chips and an iced tea. His tie was way too short. He was clearly amused at the way the other officers were treating the poor bastards who had been pulled in before them.
2.     Officer Condescending Middle-Aged Woman
3.     Officer Jackass
4.     Officer Punk

Officer #2 was telling a woman something or another about something, but by the way she spoke to the woman I could tell she wasn’t being helpful.

In between her conversation, Officer #2 would glance to her left at Officer #3 and laugh out loud at some overly sarcastic comment Officer #3 had just made to the tiny, elderly woman who was insisting that she had lived in the United States for the past thirty years. Officer #3 was explaining to the woman that her Visa was expired and that she would be denied entry, which greatly upset the woman. For some reason, maybe the woman's stilted English, this made Officer # 3 laugh and say “I can send you back right now if I want.” The woman became visibly distraught and asked to go to the bathroom. Officer #3 made a crack to Officer #2 about the woman’s stated need for her medication and a hearty laugh was shared by all four federal officers. Mind you, I was seated a good fifteen feet away and could hear all of this quite easily.

But, the most horrifying treatment was reserved for an old man who was brought into the room in a wheelchair about 30 minutes after I got there. He looked to be about 80 or older, and of Indian descent. He was frail and tired, and obviously scared and alone.

Officer Punk, obviously annoyed that he was at work in the first place, came from behind the tall desks and from across the room said, “You can walk. Come over here.” This was not a question, it was a statement. The old man did not answer. Officers #2 and #3 found this funny as well. Officer Punk strode over to the old man with a fingerprint kit in hand and in a loud and condescending tone explained to him what to do next. The old man complied and Officer Punk snorted, “Now that wasn’t too hard was it? You think you could manage to do that again, or do I need to explain it again?” As I type these words I’m struck by the fact that I do not have the talent or ability to convey to you exactly how demeaning Officer Punk was and how palpable the feeling Officer Punk had about this old man’s sub-humanness. Regardless of the immigration status of any of the people in that room last night, yours truly included, when an officer of the law treats a citizen as a sub-human, and does so glibly, every citizen needs to be alarmed. The "what does it matter to me" mindset just gives our law officers permission to treat us all as sub-humans.

Forty minutes passed and there I sat, a criminal in a holding pen for a crime I had no idea I had committed.

I read the Department of Homeland Security Mission Statement that hung on the wall behind the giant judgmental desks:

The Core Missions

  1. Prevent terrorism and enhancing security;
  2. Secure and manage our borders;
  3. Enforce and administer our immigration laws;
  4. Safeguard and secure cyberspace;
  5. Ensure resilience to disasters;
In addition, we must specifically focus on maturing and strengthening the homeland security enterprise itself.

I'm an American citizen with a valid passport and only one speeding ticket in the past 25 years. Where the hell did I fit into any of the DHS's Mission Statement? I wondered.

Tomorrow: Our intrepid libertarian blogger gets to stand below Officer Punk, as Officer Punk explains what the hell this was all about.

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