Harry's Adventures in Wonderland

by Harry Browne

September 27, 2004     

Suppose government agents were to stop you as you were going somewhere, order you to take off your jacket and shoes, stand and be searched, and have your purse or briefcase searched all without a warrant or probable cause. Could this happen in America, the land of the free?

Well, yes. At least you'd be in America, although it's questionable whether it's the land of the free.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of Americans are stopped, searched, and humiliated even though they've committed no crimes, and in fact aren't even suspected of committing crimes.

They're airline passengers.

There was a time when airline travel was tolerable, but no more. Thank goodness I no longer have to go to an airport nearly every day as I did during the presidential campaigns.

The Day Begins

Last Tuesday I began the day's adventures already late. I had spent several hours trying to get my computer to do something it declined to do (apparently on religious grounds), and so I arrived at the airport only 45 minutes before flight time.

I was flying to San Francisco on a second-tier airline that had no curbside check-in. So I had to carry my bags inside to the ticket counter.

There I encountered a ticket agent who had apparently begun working for the airline about five minutes before I arrived, because she had to ask the woman at the next station for help on each step in the process of checking me in.

At one point it became apparent that she'd sent my luggage (which had already disappeared into the chute) to San Jose, tagged with the name "Tasko" instead of Browne. She swore she'd have no problem retrieving my bags before they left Nashville, but by this time I'd lost all faith in her ability to do anything.

(Actually, a great deal of what we blame the airlines for is actually the result of government interference. But that's another story for another time.)

The ticket agent was taking forever to check me in, and the minutes were flying by. I knew the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was introducing new, more oppressive procedures to screen passengers and I was afraid I wouldn't get past them and to the gate on time. I asked the ticket agent whether the new procedures had begun yet.
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She called over one of the TSA (government) employees and asked him. He said, "Yes, they started yesterday. It's because of the Chechnya terrorism."

One of the virtues I learned in campaigning was self-discipline. No wise cracks in inappropriate situations, no getting involved in meaningless arguments, and so on. But it's now four years since the last campaign and the cork finally popped out of the bottle.

I blurted out, "But that has nothing to do with us."

"Yes it does," he said. "Terrorism is a worldwide problem."

"No it isn't," I said. "The Russians and the Chechens have been fighting each other for decades. It has nothing to do with us."

He stared at me for an eerie few moments. I wondered whether I had gone too far and thereby interrupted his defense of our freedoms. But instead he finally said, "Well, you're entitled to your opinion."

I presume that his Russian-Chechen story was what his superiors had told him when explaining the new procedures for tightening the screws on airline passengers.

If so, it's a strong example of how anything that happens anywhere in the world is now an excuse to expand the American Police State.

Second Chance

But my adventures were just beginning.

My boarding pass was stamped with a mark of infamy that singled me out for special treatment at the security area. (In Germany the special mark was a "J".)

No metal detector for me. I had to go through a gauntlet of my own beginning with the removal of my shoes and my jacket. My briefcase was searched by hand, instead of going through the X-ray machine. The inspector actually rifled through a book he found, almost page by page. He also checked every CD in a case. I then had to be patted down, not just "wanded."

I should have learned my lesson when the TSA agent at the ticket counter refrained from arresting me for speaking my mind. But, unfortunately, the cork popped out of the bottle again. As the inspector was searching my person, I asked him if he had probable cause.

"Yes, there's a mark on your boarding pass."

Do you have a warrant?

"No."

Ever hear of the 4th amendment?

"Do you want me to get the police over here?"

I answered, "No, I'll do what you say because I want to get on the plane and you have the power to stop me. But this whole charade is unconstitutional and ridiculous."

"Actually, I agree with you," he said.

"Then why do you work here?," I asked.

"I didn't mean the security procedures in general just this special treatment."

By this point, we were through and I wasn't going to stick around to debate politics with him. I was grateful that my comments hadn't landed me in jail in this nation of free speech.

The Day Continues

It wasn't just the government that was trying so hard to make my day.

When I got to the hotel in San Francisco (with my luggage, fortunately), I told the desk clerk, "My name is Browne with an e' at the end, first name Harry."

He had trouble finding me in the computer, and asked again what my name was. I replied, "Browne, B-R-O-W-N-E, first name Harry, H-A-R-R-Y."

By this time I had my credit card in my hand available in case he ever found me in the computer. He saw it and said, "Let me look at your card." He studied my name on the card and said, "Oh, there's an e' on the end; no wonder I couldn't find it."

To This We've Come

It's hard to believe today, but three decades ago it was possible to take a loaded gun on an airplane. For all I know, there might have been a federal law against it but, if so, the only way you could get caught would be by displaying the gun or by making the mistake of telling someone who would inform on you.

Then in 1973 the metal detectors were installed because of a handful of hijackings, even though very few people were hurt in the hijackings. Airport security remained pretty much the same from then until 2001 at which point came the deluge of more and more oppressive invasions of privacy.

Of course, the U.S. government won't do the one thing that would make all these intrusions unnecessary bring the troops home from all over the world and quit meddling in the business of other countries. And so there's no hope that airports will become any friendlier in the foreseeable future.

Most people seem to think the airport security is just fine. That's because either (1) they don't fly more often than once a year; (2) they actually think the increased security makes us safer; or (3) they assume that each new oppression is the last, and so we can learn to live somehow with the latest abrogation of our freedoms not realizing that there's more to come next month and next year.

After all, Turkmenistan rebels might set off a bomb in their nation's capital next month allowing the U.S. government, in the name of fighting terrorism, to decree that all airline passengers henceforth must strip to their underwear before proceeding to the gate.

Meanwhile, Back in Wonderland

Too often these days, I really do feel as though I've fallen down Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole into Wonderland.

To protect my freedom, the airport security screeners strip me of my freedom and my Constitutional rights (as well as some of my clothes), humiliate me, and interfere with my life.

To make me more secure, the Office of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney General scare me to death periodically with warnings of catastrophic attacks.

And in far-off prisons, forgotten men languish never having been tried. As the Wonderland Queen said, "Sentence first verdict afterwards." And in these cases, long afterward. In fact, they probably never will have a trial and a verdict.

I think I liked America a lot better than Wonderland.