By Max Treitler
I was quietly horrified Thursday at the news that Customs and Immigration agents were running a random checkpoint on I-95, in our state, pulling over drivers to ask about citizenship status and using drug sniffer dogs. I fully realize how completely naive it is to have waited be upset only now; after all, these things have been going on around the country for 18 months, so the only thing that is different is that this here at home, inside what I realize I was secretly feeling was a safe boundary. Not here in Maine, I somehow thought.
We make a serious mistake if we accept the idea that this is actually about intercepting drugs or non-citizens. I am from a generation that holds firmly to the right to tell an officer very respectfully to go mind their own beeswax when we are questioned in the course of our daily business, unless they have a legitimate and provable reason for suspicion. This is a certain bit of American arrogance — a luxury generally not allowed to people of a different skin color than mine, but hard won through the years of the ’60s and ’70s. We have grown up with the expectation that simply walking down the street, or driving down a road is not enough reason for an authority to stop us and ask questions.
In response to these incidents, we are now expected to simply say yes that we are citizens, and keep our heads down and quietly go on our way, safe in the knowledge that we are on the safe side of an imaginary line of difference between us and those being detained. Won’t happen here in Maine, won’t happen to me, I’m a citizen, won’t happen to me, I’m Caucasian — you pick it, there’s some safe line we can hide behind. So we think. But the entire state of Maine is within 100 miles of either the coast or the border with Canada, so there is nowhere here outside the claimed authority of this federal entity; there is no safe line. Nine of the arrests were for drug possession — so they were “drug dealers,” right? — but how certain can you be that your idiot 18-year old doesn’t stupidly have some weed in his or her car? Marijuana is legal in Maine and illegal federally. These are random searches by federal officers that take place anywhere in our state, and would be illegal if performed by state or local police. Are we safe on that one?
I am Caucasian and a holder of an American passport — safe, right? — but I am first-generation American; my father is Jewish and fled from Dortmund, Germany, under the care of his parents in 1938, barely escaping extermination. How certain can I be that my religious/ethnic background won’t ever be a place to divide me from the norm if these first steps are allowed to be taken unopposed? We have already seen attempts at legislation targeting other religious groups. My wife is German-American many generations back — WASP to the core, but our daughter chooses to date women rather than men. Are we safe? Is she?
One man recently taken off by ICE agents was the holder of a green card, a legal immigrant, with a 30-year-old old law enforcement issue that had long since been resolved, but was miscategorized in an ICE database. It takes neither imagination nor paranoia to take a quick look at yourself or any one of your friends and quickly find a place where an authority could draw a line separating you from “acceptability,” once we accept the idea that people can be arbitrarily stopped and questioned. ICE is not the only authority with jurisdiction over our lives. The federal reach extends into many different areas, therefore whoever we are, there is always a place for authorities and institutions to draw lines of difference between us.
Our only safety lies in not accepting these oversteps against the nameless and faceless around us in the first place. It doesn’t matter that these are “other people,” from “somewhere else.” There is always a way to draw a line of difference somewhere between you and me, so I can safely turn my head and walk away when you are stopped. Which one of us will it be who gets to walk and which one gets detained? The stops aren’t about a few drug interceptions; they’re about getting us accustomed to the practice of shutting up and moving on. Are we prepared to accept the request “Papers, please”? I say not in my state. I say not in our nation. The officials who represent our state should be saying the same.
Max Treitler, a small business owner in Blue Hill, is a first-generation American whose father’s family fled Germany during the rise of the Third Reich in 1938.