Democratic Underground

Suspicious Minds
November 29, 2001
by HippieGypsy

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The bad policy that has allowed John Ashcroft to unconstitutionally detain an untold number of "suspected terrorists," and the potential for abuse, hit home with me in a big way over the Thanksgiving weekend. Due to the nature of my story and out of fear of retribution, I'm not going to name cities, countries, or military and police agencies.

My family and I have lived in Europe for nearly four years - my husband has made a career of military service. He grew up in a foreign country, and like many foreigners who serve in our military (and unlike most Americans) he can quote the Bill of Rights. He also understands it and takes at face value. Being one of few liberals serving in the military, it sickens him that the very things he swore to uphold and protect are being tossed out like yesterday's newspapers.

He has to "watch what he says and does" at work, but away from work, in the privacy of our home, he lets his feelings be known. Up until a year ago, his plan was to stay until 'they' came and said, "Time to retire, old man." Now he plans to retire at 20 years.

With a long weekend upon us and Christmas just around the corner, it was the perfect excuse to get out of town for a few days and do some shopping for things that we can't find locally (which includes just about everything not produced locally) or purchased at the local military base exchange.

My husband would be unable to go with me as he would be out of the country, and my teenage daughters didn't want to go, so I said, "Fine, I'll go by myself the day after Thanksgiving."

I was recently diagnosed with a degenerative immune disorder that sometimes leaves my joints swollen and me in a great deal of pain. Lucky for me, the doctor caught it early. However, my condition is capable of deteriorating rapidly, and a week from now I could find myself confined to a wheelchair. Or I could die from major organ failure. Or it could go the other way and I could be completely well. I know I'm going to beat this, but if that isn't what fate has in store for me, I want to make the most of life while I can. Through the miracle of modern medicine (and a few holistic treatments), the only noticeable symptom of my disease was some swelling and tenderness in two fingers and the palm of one hand.

I made my airline reservation and purchased my ticket a month in advance, made a pre-paid hotel reservation and began asking my husband and daughters what they wanted me to bring home for them. Perhaps Karma was intervening in an attempt to prevent me from leaving on that fateful Friday morning. I got stuck in traffic on my way to the airport and arrived after the gate had closed. I had to plead with the lady behind the desk to let me on the flight - the last one of the weekend.

When I arrived at my hotel, I was informed that someone claiming to be me had already checked in under my pre-paid reservation. I'd made the reservation on-line and was armed with my printed confirmation, so the desk clerk was able to reassign me a room and assure me that they would get the impostor's credit card information. I'm still flabbergasted at how someone was able to check in under my name, as hotel staff always ask foreigners for a passport, but that's a story for another day.

After the initial nightmare of getting there, the weekend was completely uneventful. Along with my large purchases, I did lots of shopping for little "googahs" like aromatherapy candles and incense, local cheeses (packed for tourists to ship or take home), funky socks (stocking stuffers for the girls) and a little heart-shaped Christmas wreath made of fresh herbs and berries (one of those things that looks even more beautiful after it dries out). One of the items I purchased was extremely heavy, so I put it in a shopping bag and checked it with my one piece of luggage on my return trip home.

We caught a good tailwind and arrived at our destination 25 minutes ahead of schedule. Upon landing at home, I collected my luggage and checked shopping bag, loaded them onto a trolley with my carry-ons and headed for the currency exchange. A sign indicated that it was closed, to visit the office in the Departures area. Due to construction work, I had to exit the building to go from Arrivals to Departures.

Three steps outside the door, I felt a tap on my right shoulder and turned to see a badge and a man identifying himself as a customs agent. He invited me to go with him and another man with a badge who suddenly appeared on my left.

So with our little formation of myself with my loaded trolley marching between the two cops, we made small talk as we walked across the parking lot to their office. What was I doing in the country? I told them I live here, and have for many years. Why do I live here? My husband is serving in the U.S. military and we're stationed here. I showed them my military ID card and American passport. Where do I live? I named the town. What was the purpose of my trip abroad? I had a long weekend from work and I wanted to do some Christmas shopping. Where are my gifts? The cheese and a large, fragile item were in the carry-on bags, and the rest were in my suitcase.

The Status of Forces Agreement that the U.S. has with our host nation states that we don't pay import taxes on purchases made abroad, so I knew once they discovered I was on the level, they would let me go.

Once inside the office the two agents put my bags on the table and the first one said, "You know we're going to find the drugs, so you might as well make it easier on yourself and tell us where they are." I didn't move - it took me several seconds to comprehend what he was suggesting.

Now, even stretching the imagination past the point of Ann Coulter's reality, I don't fit anyone's description of a drug smuggler. I'm a small, very average-looking, very middle-class, near-sighted Caucasian woman in my late 30's, although with my long hair and petite frame, I look younger. Basically, I look like I should be playing a guitar and singing folk songs to Kindergarteners in Middle-America or working in a library.

Once I realized what he was saying, I just said, "Okay, do what you have to do."

Was I going to give him the drugs? I didn't have any drugs besides a package of over-the-counter Ibuprofen that I'd purchased on my trip because I forgot to pack mine, and a few prescriptions from the local U.S. military pharmacy. They're inside the rear zipper compartment of my cosmetic bag.

"Not those drugs - the Ecstasy."

"Oh my god!!! I don't have any Ecstasy! You've definitely got the wrong person! Open my bags! Look wherever you want!"

Thus began my three-hour nightmare ordeal.

They opened my bags alright. They removed all of my personal clothing as well as all of the wrapped gifts. They took the soles out of my four year-old Nike Air cross trainers. They tore the wrappers from all of the gifts, unfolding and shaking out blouses, shirts and pants, as well as the wrapping paper. They unwrapped the slippers I'd purchased for my daughters and checked inside them. They opened all five packages of the incense I'd bought and removed them from the protective plastic liner, and they tested the dust inside two tiny metal boxes (stocking stuffers for the girls). It was dust.

They looked inside the little passport bags from India. They removed all five candles from each of two boxes and a tray of cookies from it's small box and examined everything carefully. They emptied my passport bag of it's contents (military dependent ID, passport, airline ticket, credit card, car key, parking lot ticket, and approximately $75 in U.S. and two other currencies). They emptied all of my small shopping bags and cosmetic bag onto the table.

They cut the top off of my dental floss container, even though it had a pop top. They took all of my personal hygiene items, such as toothpaste, shampoo & conditioner, a bar of soap, moisturizer, saline solution, etc and put them in a box. The two agents took them to the airport to be x-rayed. They told a young rookie to keep an eye on me, so he sat in the chair on my left, and from a distance of approximately 12 inches, stared intently at me for at least 15 minutes.

He must have sensed that he was making me uncomfortable because he got up and looked at my passport and ID which were on a desk on the other side of the room. He asked me if I was 39. No - I'm 38. Would I like a cigarette? No, thanks. I don't smoke. Would I mind if he smoked? I wished he wouldn't. He again sat to my left, stared intently at me and lit a cigarette.

The two agents returned and said I could put all of my things away. Leaving the rookie to stare at me again, they said that I could leave when they return - five minutes. I asked if I could call my daughters so they don't worry. "Five minutes."

After twenty minutes the two original agents returned with a third agent (a supervisor?) who insisted on unpacking all of my belongings again. He was a little more thorough and tore out the lining of my suitcase, then he used a penknife to poke holes in the 5mm thick wooden frame. He removed the handle (it's a Pullman, the kind with the 18-inch tow-bars that retract into the back of the suitcase) and looked down inside the hollow bars. He said to put my things away - I could leave in five minutes.

I asked again if I could call my daughters. "Five minutes." Then he went into the hallway and made some phone calls. While I can understand and speak the language of my host nation enough to get around comfortably, I didn't understand a good deal of what he was saying, but I did catch that he had found nothing. He returned and asked for my airline ticket and passport. I could leave when he returns - five minutes. This time, the original two agents stayed with me.

After another twenty minutes the third agent returned with the passenger list and a fourth agent who stated, "When you flew on Friday, you checked only one bag. When you returned today, you had two. Where is the second bag? Who has it?"

"One of the things I'd purchased was big and heavy, so I checked it with my luggage," I answered. "It was in this shopping bag right here. See - even though the bag has been shreded, it still has the airline luggage tag."

Then it was time to rummage through my things again - for the third time! Perhaps something incriminating had materialized in them since the last time. No, they had other things in mind. The two original agents took my parking ticket and car key, asked the make, model, color and approximate location of my car and set out to search for whatever they thought I had while the third agent broke the wooden frame of my suitcase into several pieces and disassembled the handle again, and sent it to the airport with the rookie for x-rays, but not before he poured water inside the extremely narrow tow-bars to see if anything floated to the surface. I asked again to call my daughters. This time, they ignored me.

I turned to the fourth agent and realized he was cutting up my candles. I asked him why he was doing that. Those are Christmas presents for my daughters! He said he was going to test them and he promised me he would do as little damage as possible. When he had finished destroying the candles, it was time to dissect my cheese. The drug testing chemicals reacted and gave a false positive that brought the third agent running. I gave him the package which had the ingredients listed in all EU languages, and he stepped into the hallway and began making phone calls.

The original agents returned about this time, and upon discovering the false positive, began looking for other things to test. The first agent picked up my pretty heart-shaped wreath and began ripping it to pieces. I am the most non-materialistic, minimalist person most people know, and while I'm not wealthy, I have the means to replace everything, but witnessing that one brutal, unnecessary act of desecration of nature, it felt like someone had punched through my chest and ripped my heart out, and I began to cry. "You want to tell me something now, Lady?" he asked.

"Yes," I told him. "You have kept me here for more than two hours. You haven't let me call my daughters to let them know I'm okay. I've cooperated with you completely while you've trashed luggage and my family's Christmas gifts! I really liked that little wreath and there was no reason for you to do what you did!" "Five more minutes," he said and he left the rookie to stare at me again.

I drank tea, soda and water on the plane, and after my lengthy detention, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. I asked if it would be okay if I used the ladies' room. The called the first agent who escorted me, and while he allowed me to close the stall door, he stood right outside. The entire trip to the ladies' room took all of two minutes, during which I didn't produce what they were hoping for. We returned to the interrogation room and the third agent returned and sent agents 2 and 4 away. "It's just cheese." He said, "You can go."

The first agent stopped me and suggested that we take a ride to the local hospital for some x-rays to see if I'd swallowed the drugs. By this time, I was at the end of my rope, and I didn't care if I ended up in jail for copping an attitude with him.

"Look," I told him, "It took me three hours to fly here. You've detained me for nearly three hours. That's a total of six hours. If I'd swallowed something, I'd be dead by now. But, if you insist on wasting tax dollars to take pictures of bad airplane food - the only thing I"ve eaten all day, fine! But before we leave this building, I demand that you make a phone call to the U.S. military security detachment to request an American female security officer to escort us. That is my guaranteed right as stated in the Status of Forces Agreement. They can have someone here in 5 minutes. I also want to call my friend who works locally for the state military police and ask him to escort us as well."

"You're free to go," he replied. Before he released me, he made copies of my passport and airline ticket.

After the damage they inflicted upon my luggage and shopping bags, I had to make four trips up and down the stairs to haul all of my things out to my trolley, which, miracle of miracles was still there. No offers of help. No apologies. No "Thank-you for your patience and cooperation."

I emailed my husband and told him of my ordeal. He said I should talk with our state military police friend and get his take on the situation. I knew before I even spoke with him what he was going to say. They were within their rights. Obviously, they got a tip that someone on that plane was hauling a great deal of drugs. My actions (light suitcase going, heavy suitcase returning, traveling alone, the fact that I was in a hurry to leave the airport) may have played a role in making me a suspect. Or, an accomplice may have pointed the finger at me to throw the heat off the real culprit.

In any event, the agents wasted all of our time and any drugs that may have been on that plane have found their way into the market. Our friend suggested I could hire a local attorney to contact the commander of the airport's customs agents and lodge a formal complaint, but that pretty much is tantamount to complaining about bad service at a family-run business. They didn't fill out paperwork or make me sign anything, so they may catch Hell for that, but that would be the extent of it. In other words, it isn't worth the time, money or energy.

It's been a few days since my ordeal. My medical condition has deteriorated rapidly. Both of my hands and my elbow joints are extremely painful and swollen. It took me two days to write this story. Sometimes (in the middle of doing yard-work or grocery shopping for example), I find myself distracted. I sit down and rub my hands against my face, until I realize what I'm doing. I can't concentrate long enough to read though a newspaper article. I fluctuate between insomnia and deep sleep that doesn't relieve the overwhelming exhaustion I've experienced since. Sometimes I start to cry for no reason.

I've made an appointment with my doctor for later in the week. Depression is another symptom of my disease, but until my ordeal, I wasn't depressed. He's probably going prescribe anti-depressants. I despise swallowing any kind of pill, and the thought of adding another to the growing list - one that has the potential to turn me into a zombie - brings me to tears. However, I have the support of a loving family and I refuse to be anyone's 'victim'. Though it may take some time, this too will pass.

Nobody - even someone who is guilty - should ever have to go through what I went through. I'm lucky; my ordeal lasted only three hours. Without my military dependent status to give me leverage it could have been much worse. A couple of bad agents could have planted drugs in my car, or given an accomplice the keys to drive away in it. I could have ended up in a ditch, with a couple of warning shots fired into the back of my head.

Tens of hundreds of (mostly) innocent individuals have been detained without charges and without legal representation in the U.S. since 11 September. Their rights, as guaranteed by the constitution are being grossly violated. Who are they? Were their personal possessions viciously destroyed by over-zealous federal agents? How many of them are deteriorating due to medical conditions exacerbated by their stressful situations?

When Alan Dershowitz states, "If we are to have torture, it should be authorized by the law. Judges should have to issue a "torture warrant' in each case," it's time to worry.

How soon until our "allies," fed up with horror stories of their citizens returning from a "dream vacation" to America turn the tables on our innocent citizens? How many people, after reading my story, are going to run right down to their friendly neighborhood travel agent and book a "dream vacation" abroad? Who is going to buy things when they travel if those things are going to be trashed in what amounts to nothing more than a modern-day witch hunt?

John Ashcroft has opened a vicious can of worms that's going to come back and bite all of America. Will trampling the constitution and ripping up the bill of rights do anything to prevent the terrorists carrying out their plans? Fat chance.

How many foreigners, upon discovering that our USA PATRIOT Act could lead to indefinite detention and no opportunity to contact an attorney or family, are going to waste their money on that "dream vacation" to America? No tourists means no hotel business; no restaurant business; nobody to buy overpriced souvenirs. This bad policy will only serve to instill fear in the hearts and minds the masses, put more Americans out of work and classify innocent visitors as "guilty until proven innocent."

Our Constitutional rights are what made us better than those banana republics that, until recently were chastised by our leaders for doing exactly what our leaders are now guilty of doing - in the name of freedom no less. Hypocrisy, thy name is Republican.