11 January 2013

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses,
papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,
shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon
probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and
particularly describing the place to be searched, and the
persons or things to be seized.
     - U.S. Constitution, 4th Amendment

Last night ended badly.

I've had what can likely best be described as an up-close and personal experience with the emerging totalitarian state in this nation. As I have been diligent and careful in recent years about letting myself be in situations and locations where I am likely to encounter police and military intervention, the sudden appearance of a swarm of armed men and dogs in my vicinity was shocking.

I'd gone to visit friends in New Jersey for a few days. They live in a prosperous, peaceful suburban community not far from the coast, the kind of place that makes you appreciate Mom, the flag and apple pie. I'd taken the bus from Boston to Newark, the NJ Transit from Newark to a nearby town. I like riding the buses and trains -- I have plenty of leg room, the seats are comfortable, the drivers and conductors are pleasant, and the prices are far less than what you'd pay for air travel.

I've been boycotting air travel for more than two years since the TSA took over the airports. I do not believe that privately owned airports and airplanes are "rights-free" zones. I refuse to willingly extend any of my resources, including the air I breathe, to support or subsidize what I consider gross infringements of my personal liberties and rights as a citizen. When you factor in the additional time required by the TSA rigamarole and security theater into the trip, there's really no difference between ground and air travel. It's a no-brainer.

At every step of the way, I was treated with courtesy. I produced my ticket at the gate, the bus driver checked it, and welcomed me aboard. On the train, the conductor smiled and whistled as he collected tickets. The passengers who rode with me were similarly welcomed.

Four days later, I again boarded the train and headed north. Same simple steps, same welcoming from both conductors and drivers. On the bus, most passengers dozed, listened to personal music players or quietly chatted. It all felt perfectly normal, right up to the moment we pulled into the bus station in Boston.

The driver opened the door and as we stood to collect our belongings and put on coats, a young man in a hoodie and jeans, his hair slicked back and closely cropped, jumped aboard. He shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Drugs Administration. This bus has been randomly selected for a training exercise with our drug-sniffing dogs. You will remain aboard the bus until we unload the baggage compartment and our dogs will inspect the bags to see if they detect any traces of drugs or narcotics. We appreciate your cooperation." From the middle of the bus, standing in the aisle, I strained to see the agent. He was holding a big wallet with a gold badge in his left hand, waving it a little as he spoke. His announcement ended, he exited the bus.

We all stared out the windows and watched for what seemed quite a long time as similarly dressed men, many of them looking like drug dealers themselves, unloaded luggage from the storage compartment and then led the dogs around the bags surrounding the bus. Nobody inside the bus spoke. 

Not even me. 

Eventually, the young man with the slicked-back hair jumped onto the bus again and announced, "You will now exit the bus slowly and singly, and this will conclude our exercise. The Bureau thanks you for your cooperation in keeping the city of Boston free from drugs." He unlatched the plexiglas door that had prevented our exit, and dismounted. One by one, we slowly dismounted, collected our bags, and walked into the terminal. By the time I got off the bus, the agents and dogs were gone, nowhere to be seen. 

And no way to ask any questions.

I noted that the hapless bus driver stood to the side of the bus, his head down, not looking at the passengers as we disembarked. He did not wish us a good night, or a pleasant stay in our arrival destination. It was 11:15 pm, and we had been detained by more than half an hour.

As I made my way through the bus station to the street below, with each step my outrage increased. Under whose authority and with what warrant of probable cause did those agents have the right to detain us or search our belongings? A warrantless search, then -- what if they'd actually discovered drugs or narcotics? Without probable cause, would they have had the right to confiscate them, or arrest the person who possessed them?

When the TSA settled itself and its security theatrics in the airports, people who objected to their presence were told, "If you don't like it, don't fly." Their argument was that flying was not a right, and when you bought a ticket, you entered an agreement with the airline that you had to do what they told you to do. I believed then, and still do, that when rights are inalienable, that means they can't be separated from you -- by the very definition of the word inalienable. Your rights are your rights, and they are part and parcel of you. You can't sign them away, give them away and they can't be taken from you as a matter of simple course.

Yet the thirty-five or so people on the bus were subjected to an infringement by government-sanctioned agents of our Constitutional rights in the middle of the night, for the purposes of an "exercise," without warrant, without probable cause, without warning.

Welcome to the police state that we always thought "can't happen here." I've got news for you -- it can, and it has.

Excuse me. I've got a bunch of letters and complaints to file with my duly elected representatives and the people in charge of the private property on which this government assault on my 4th amendment rights occurred. If I don't speak out against this, nothing will ever change.



cybele said...

what strikes me as odd is you mention the driver has his head down as you exited like he had something to hide.
And are you sure they didn't steal anything from anyone's luggage? That's the first thing I thought of when reading it.

-mb said...

I had the impression he was ashamed of what had happened; he couldn't touch the bags, the agents were fairly abrupt and disrespectful toward him as well as to us, and in the end, he had to wait as thirty-five confused/angry/unhappy people got off the damned bus, delayed by the "exercise" over which he had zero control. If it was me, my head would have been hanging, too.