A constant in criminal defense is the fight to convince someone, whether government agent, prosecutor or judge, that their perspective of what things are and how things should be is not universal. Whether it’s explaining why a Chinese immigrant would eschew a bank account for keeping their savings under the mattress, or why a street kid in Harlem doesn’t see a future for himself at Harvard.
We are all limited by our scope of knowledge and experience, and the more limited, the narrower the understanding and more likely to find things outside our scope of knowledge to be wrong, dangerous, nefarious. It results in innocent conduct being deemed criminally intended. It results in destroying the things with which we’re unfamiliar, and thus afraid.
When flute virtuoso Boujemaa Razgui flew into New York’s JFK Airport, his sensibilities came face to face with a customs agent of monumentally limited grasp.
The flute virtuoso who performs regularly with The Boston Camerata lost 13 handmade flutes over the holidays when a US Customs official at New York’s JFK Airport mistook the instruments for pieces of bamboo and destroyed them.
“They said this is an agriculture item,” said Razgui, who was not present when his bag was opened. “I fly with them in and out all the time and this is the first time there has been a problem. This is my life.” When his baggage arrived in Boston, the instruments were gone. He was instead given a number to call. “They told me they were destroyed,” he says.
One might immediately wonder why the customs agents didn’t first ask, but that would miss the point. He could have, but why would he? He saw bamboo. He didn’t see flutes. He knew all he needed to know, which was enough to destroy. To ask would have meant that he understood the limits of his grasp, that the objects were unfamiliar to him and the fault was with his ignorance, not the bamboo objects. But he knew what he knew, and didn’t know what he didn’t know.
But shortly after 9/11, the instrument was confiscated at JFK Airport when he landed in New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. Thinking the glue smelled funny, the TSA decided to take no chances and destroyed the instrument.
Of course, even a TSA agent knows what a piano is, and perhaps even the value of the Steinway variety, but “funny” smelling glue at a time when the government was inclined to “take no chances” meant destruction first. After all, it’s not like it was the agent’s piano.
Then there was German cellist Alban Gerhardt’s bow. To the unaware, it’s just a piece of wood with some hairy stuff attached, and certainly nothing to be too concerned about. The TSA agent who inspected it was clearly unaware.
The TSA (Transportation Security Agency) in Washington, DC, not trusting the X-Ray-image felt the need to open the case. They took the cello out in my absence, put it back in, carelessly detaching the bow partly from its mounting and finally slamming the case shut, in the process breaking the bow right in the middle of the bridge of the cello. Quite a miracle the cello didn’t implode under that stress. How do I know they opened the cello case? They were stupid enough to slip a “notice of baggage inspection” into the case!
There is a level of finesse, of concern, that accompanies the movement of things of rarity and beauty, that eludes those charged with protecting us from enemies, real and imagined. Whether they can’t be bothered, or just don’t understand, it ends with the destruction of something that their banal hands would never touch but for their wearing a uniform and badge.
And much like sufferers of Dunning-Kruger, they perform their job with such certainty of omniscience that they have no qualms about the destruction they do. It was absolutely necessary. They had no choice.
It’s heart-breaking to hear of things of rarity, of beauty, of significance being wantonly destroyed by the stupidest person in the room. It goes without saying that the stupidest person in the room never realizes that it’s him.
What’s curious is how easy it is to see when it’s a musical instrument destroyed by a moron, but how difficult it becomes, or at least excusable, when the target of this failure is a human being. Police, prosecutors and judges invariably project their sensibilities on the conduct of people whose lives and experiences are nothing like theirs, and yet they judge them by the measure of their own narrow lives.
The same happens with jurors, who are asked to value the relative reasonableness of conduct and choices made by a person kept half a room away from them for their own safety. The most infamous of these valuations is that an innocent person would never confess to a crime he didn’t commit, a belief held with near-absolute certainty.
The same myopic grasp of the world causes a customs agent to destroy a flute, a TSA agent to destroy a Steinway piano, a TSA agent to be careless with a virtuoso’s cello bow, and the rest of us with human lives. Just because we don’t know what it is, or why it acts the way it does, doesn’t make us capable of passing judgment upon it.
It’s sad when it’s a beloved musical instrument. It’s horrible when it’s a human being, who is at least as worthy of the effort to understand and appreciate as an object.