In which I recount the story of a minor incident that occured yesterday (St. Patrick’s Day) in Midtown Manhattan, that is entirely unimportant in it’s impact, but significant in what it reveals about being an American citizen.
For regular users of the Long Island Railroad and the New York City subway system, the message is repeated and insistent, as disembodied voices over the loudspeakers intone:
Backpacks and other large containers are subject to a random search by the police.
I was in a hurry to make my train, but I had to drop off a FedEx package first, so I dashed around the corner to deposit that. This took me in the exact opposite direction from where I needed to go – but I moved quickly. I crossed 42nd Street on a fast-blinking “Stop” hand, but made it without blocking traffic. From there, it was a half-block to the subway station – which I got through moving into and out of the strolling mobs of tourists and the slower-paced commuters. As I entered the subway station, I could see the turnstile and knew that I only had to make it down the three flights of stairs to make my train.
I noticed a portly, bald-headed cop twirling something – a police baton perhaps – casually strolling into and out of the rush hour crowd. He pointed at me as I went to swipe my MetroCard: “Random security search. Get over to the desk,” he said. It’s minor thing, I know. But in that moment, of being casually ordered around while doing no wrong in a public place while everyone around me continued on – I felt a surge of anger at being told what to do, of frustration at being impeded while trying to make my train, of annoyance at the inconvenience, of the slight fear that comes from entering into an interaction with armed men who are regarding you with some suspicion, of resentment at being casually ordered about. I wondered if I was doing something that made me a target – my walk, my age, the fact that I made eye contact with the police.
But I did what I was told – after a moment of slight hesitiation in which I looked around to make sure the officer meant me. He nodded and said, “You.” At the desk, there was a different officer. He seemed apologetic. Behind him was a third officer, hand on his weapon holster, stern-faced. “Put down your bag.” I did. Waited a beat. The officer behind said, “Open up the pockets,” with an attitude suggesting I should have known better than to wait before doing this. Another spasm of annoyance at that attitude.
“All of them?” I ask. My bag has eight pockets. “Just the main ones,” the second officer said, still apologetic. “I know you don’t have anything in the bag.” Then why are you looking? I thought, but at the same time, relieved that he thoughtI look and act trustworthy. He looked at the bag – perhaps even into the pockets. I can’t imagine he would have found anything with his search unless it was shining brightly. “Thanks,” he said. I hurried back off – and missed my train by about 20 seconds – it pulled out of the station as I was still descending the stairs.
That’s it. The encounter is truly trivial. I missed my train – but this is but a small inconvenience. None of the officers were abusive. There was a slight attitude – but no one’s perfect. I don’t oppose the policy of random searches, although I’m not sure how effective it is.
But within this interaction something important occurred – something that occurs every day across the world: The local political authorities set up a checkpoint to search innocent people in the hope of finding or deterring illegal activity. In some nations this is routine and perhaps becomes accepted. The bursts of anger and annoyance I felt but did not act upon become dulled or perhaps aren’t even felt by citizens of these nations. These citizens perhaps become inured to the daily violence being done to their essential liberties. Or perhaps they don’t.
What exactly had happened? Armed men picked random people from a crowd and searched their belongings for signs of illegal activity. In my case, through no fault of my own, I was temporarily detained and pressured to allow the authorities to search my possessions. My personal space was violated. My private possessions were searched. I was pressured to consent to a search without a warrant. For a moment, I was regarded as a person of suspicion, on the “other” side of the law – and my freedom was suddenly at the whim of the armed men around me. In a primal sense, my liberty was violated. Violence was done to the God-given, inherent rights I enjoy as a human being – which the American government was formed to protect.
Yet – I do not oppose this policy. I am not saying what the police officers did was wrong. If this policy of random searches prevents a single terrorist attack, it’s probably worth it, in my opinion. Steps were clearly taken to ensure that I was inconvenienced as little as possible. From what I recall, I had the right to walk away from the search and not enter the subway. But that does not change the fact that my rights were violated – perhaps with due cause and sufficient safeguards – but they were violated nevertheless, and I could feel on a gut level that they were being violated.
Now imagine all of the circumstances in which there are additional factors making a search like this more intrusive and seem more unjust – if I needed to go through it every day instead of once in a year; if I was required to submit to it instead of having a choice; if the officers seemed to bear me some kind of ill-will; if I was a member of a targeted ethnic group; if I did not accept the legitimacy of the authority conducting the search – or if I had no say over how they acted. Imagine if the procedures were more intrusive.
Imagine what emotions Palestinians must feel having to be searched by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints; that Iraqis must feel being searched by American troops to move about their own country. Imagine as the anger builds up at each minor injustice, each negative attitude, each time one’s impotence in the presence of men with guns is brought home.
One thing that is easy to forget when creating checkpoints such as this is the fact that each search is a violation of the liberty of an individual. It may be in the interests of justice – but there is a tradeoff involved. This isn’t about the ACLU agitating for more rights – it is about my sense of liberty moving about in a free society. To lose that is a precious thing. To be denied it is something that will make anyone angry.
Which is why I’m glad I felt violated by this occurence – it lets me know that I still am alive, that I still consider myself a citizen in the basic American sense of the word.