He Who Can, Does. He Who Cannot Takes a Job with a Federal Safety Agency

A former colleague, who lived and worked in the U.S. on a valid work permit, would travel back to Canada periodically to renew the permit. It was, generally, an uncomplicated albeit annoying process, until the time he was denied the renewal because he lacked physical proof that he was college educated as per the work permit’s requirement. So, at his own expense, he managed to secure his actual college diploma and return to the border. But the U.S. border security guards did not believe the diploma was valid, because it was in a different language.

It was in Latin.

Like one hanging on my wall. And on the wall of millions of U.S. college and graduate school alumni. My friend had to pay for a certified translation to be granted reentry, which he finally secured.

My point here is not to start a debate over Latin or English only diploma inscriptions. Those are fighting words for some – but not for me. My point is to nominate those U.S. border security guards for the intellectual equivalent of the annual Darwin Awards.

It does not end there, of course. Then there are the head-shaking stories of interactions with our favorite blue-shirted defenders of airport safety – the Transportation Security Administration. Such as the TSA agents who didn’t know the District of Columbia is an officially recognized legal geographical piece of the United States of America. Or the JFK screener who didn’t realize the metal detector was unplugged. Planes had to be diverted, passengers rescreened. Or the TSA agent who asked me, “Sir, is this your real name?” What? Seriously? I was tempted to respond “Ah, you got me, it’s actually Fidel Castro.”

George Bernard Shaw entered idiom history with, “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.” Now, I married into a family of teachers and, for reasons of personal safety, I will not comment on what is, of course, a silly statement. But I will revise it to, “He who can, does; he who cannot, takes a job with a federal safety agency.”

Sweeping generalization and ad hominem attack? Of course. But it does carry a grain of truth.

Or make that a silo. Recently, two teenagers were crossing from Canada back into the United States after a competition. And then, as AP reported:

The skirl of their pipes had barely receded before two New Hampshire teenagers learned a hard lesson in cross-border musical diplomacy: If your bagpipes have ivory in them, leave them at home before traveling to Canada or risk having them seized at the border.

The U.S. is part of an international agreement banning ivory importation as of 1976. Bagpipes often contain ivory, but, like many musical instruments (Stradivarius anyone?), they are hundreds of years old and therefore well predate that 1976 cutoff. These boys had certificates to prove as such. But to no avail. The U.S. border guards merely indicated they were enforcing an international ban against illegal ivory shipments, and that it is ultimately up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the provenance of any seized ivory and whether to release those seized items back to their owners.

The boys eventually got their pipes back – thanks to congressional and public pressure – but not before paying a $576 fine for taking their instruments across the border at a “non-designated crossing.” That’s what we call the U.S. government trying to save face.

The rub here is not the abilities – or lack thereof— of these rank and file government workers (that won’t change). It’s not even the grim reality that our regulatory process has forced many well-meaning bureaucrats to raise their hands with a sympathetic, “I know this is dumb, but it’s the letter of the law” (hopefully that will change).

What’s serious about all of this is that the burden of proof no longer rests on us anymore. It is now a guilty-until-we-determine-you-are-innocent/your-certificate-may-be-valid-but-it’s-up-to us-to-determine-that-because-we-can’t-trust-you world.

In other words, it’s what the Founders feared: Our rights, our Constitution, our political process are no longer about protecting us from government. It’s government regulators and employees having the protection against us.

Government in spite of the people does not bode well.

Maybe next time, I will say my name is Fidel Castro. Can they prove I’m not?