September 13, 2010

Refusing To Answer The Feds

you're not the boss of me

Paul Lucaks wrote a post called, "I Am Detained By The Feds For Not Answering Questions."

Imagine the rest, but here's his first sentence:

I was detained last night by federal authorities at San Francisco International Airport for refusing to answer questions about why I had traveled outside the United States.
There's a few ways to go with this, but here's a start: this article was written 4/24/2010.  It received 700+ comments.  He wrote a follow-up article to this yesterday.

"Why were you in China?" asked the passport control officer, a woman with the appearance and disposition of a prison matron.

"None of your business," I said.

Her eyes widened in disbelief.

"Excuse me?" she asked.

"I'm not going to be interrogated as a pre-condition of re-entering my own country," I said.

In other words, this is what he was thinking about on 9/11.


The easy interpretation is that he is/is not an idiot for baiting the border patrol.  Yes, it's his right not to answer questions (or not to show ID at security, which I tried), but for a man who has had 5 months to reconsider his position he's apparently learned nothing.

The real question, however, is why he did this.   The only way this form of protest is meaningful is if it is done in public.  In other words, the only reason for him to do this is so that he could tell us about it.

He thinks this is a battle between himself and the border patrol as representatives of the US Government.  That would be a gigantic example of not seeing the other person, not seeing their perspective.  That border agent isn't a representative of the government, he's an employee of it.    Look at them closely-- they don't look like Dick Cheney at all.   These aren't arms of the Executive Branch that thrive on suppressing the human dignity of liberals, these are people  who enjoy Schlitz and masturbation.  Just like any other decent American.  You can't change anything by yelling at him, and Lukacs knows that.  And he doesn't care.  Lukacs is the main character in his own movie, and he is yelling at the character designated as "mean border agent." Note that he didn't bother to take the names of any of the fascists who were mauling his civil rights.  In the credits, they will appear as #1, #2, #3, etc.

Paul doesn't think he is the best or smartest or sexiest character in his movie, but it is quite evident that he thinks he is the only one.


This isn't to say he's a narcissist; in some other situations he may be quite empathic and contemplative; but power dynamics trip him up emotionally, so he regresses.  If you read his article and get the feeling he's behaving a little like spoiled toddler, there you go.


Lukacs claims they have no power over him.  But Lukacs doesn't understand at all how power works; he is confusing law and power, and that confusion bought him an hour in the chairs.  "The Feds" have complete power over him.  The fact that he doesn't understand how utterly manipulated he was demonstrates this.  The moment they "led me into a waiting room with about thirty chairs" they already knew he wasn't a threat.  They knew he was just a troublemaker, specifically making trouble for the officers who were unlucky enough to have him in their line. They ran his name in a federal database.  Maybe they did a google search as well, which would return his photo and reveal that he's little more than some blowhard lawyer.

But it's at the moment they decide that he isn't a threat that the demonstration of their power begins, and he complies.  They tell him to sit, and he sits.  They tell him to follow, and he does.  They know they can't legally do anything with him, so they play with him.  "Six other people were waiting."  What did he think those six people were they doing there?  They were just like him.  They didn't answer the questions. Lukacs writes, "This must not happen often, because several of the officers involved seemed thrown by my refusal to meekly bend to their whim." Setting aside that asking the questions they are instructed to ask isn't a whim, and that not everyone who doesn't want to be inconvenienced because they value their time is "meek", he is incorrect.   It happens often enough that they built a room for it, in every airport.  With lots of chairs.

Lukacs gets it wrong because he thinks he has disrupted the process by refusing to answer.  Wrongtanomo.  That is the process.  Just a slightly less-used branch on the Process Flowchart.  The room and chairs are there because the government assumes that people will exercise their rights and not answer.  The room is exactly the same as the line he was in at first, except for a different group of people.  The room is there to remind you that it costs you something to enforce your rights (time and aggravation) and costs them nothing to impose that cost on you.

I'm not supporting or endorsing what they did to him any more than I support what he did.  But understand this, it makes no difference to the agents, this game.  They punch out at the same time everyday.  How they spend their 7.5 hours at work is largely irrelevant.  Maybe some guy was a nuisance for an hour or two.  Whatever.  They're still back home in time to get annoyed by their kids.

Lukacs thinks he is fighting the government, and the government is fighting back.  In reality, the government doesn't feel this fight at all.  Border agents do; I'm annoyed at him and I'm at home, I can imagine how they felt.  So they took what power they had, and used it.


There's a subtle but powerful Strangeglovian brilliance to the system in place.  By giving the officers this permission to do what's necessary-- it subtly shifts Lukacs grievance away from the government's policy to the easily defended/"solved" actions of the agents on the ground. 

This is similar to what happens at G8 riots or political demonstrations - the demonstrators clash with police, literally instigating fights with riot police sometimes, thinking it will further their cause.  But the police don't represent the interests behind any political agenda any more than the demonstrators do.  They are there simply to maintain order while the protesters exercise their rights.  The protesters' real grievance is with people they don't dare fight in any way (including not buying their products).  So they use the supporting cast of police officers as some kind of character exposition in their movie: "in this scene, I'm a protester fighting the bad police."

Governments know this, this is the structure of power.  The more cops on the street maintaining order, the more likely the situation will decay into disorder as protesters confuse challenging the authority of the policymakers with challenging the power of the police. So they fight, and the media goes with the story that's for you: unruly protestors clashing with police, pick a side, and thereby quietly removing from the story the real and legitimate political grievance that initiated the protest in the first place.

What Lukacs doesn't realize that his legitimate desire to challenge the authority of the government was transformed into a confrontation over the reasonableness of the use of the government's power by its agents.  He isn't defending any right great or small, he's simple playing out his part in feeding the machine.


What would Lukacs have done if the border patrol agents were all robots?  Narcissistic thinking never works on robots.  A person may completely ignore how another person is thinking, but everyone always understands a robot's perspective.   With robots, it is explicitly understood that they are operating on a flowchart, that they have a definite way of thinking of their own that has nothing to do with who you think you are.   You can't force your thinking on a robot.   So Lukacs wouldn't dare disobey anything upon which he cannot impose his will.  That's why he's fighting border agents, and not the government.

Co-written by Pastabagel