No Better Than The Most Ignorant Agent

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.

At Overlawyered, Walter Olson writes of the sad death of musical instruments at the hands of morons with authority but without grasp.  There was Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman’s Steinway piano:

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.

23 thoughts on “No Better Than The Most Ignorant Agent

  1. Marc R

    Happy New Year.

    Now the police have another explanation for hasty shootings…I didn’t know the suspect laying down was surrendering for arrest, I thought he was looking for guns he planted under the asphalt.

    1. SHG Post author

      One of my long-time themes is how courts give greater latitude based upon ignorance than would be allowed for an informed officer. Not knowing means they can do pretty much anything. It’s absurd.

      1. DDJ

        I’m a first time reader, having found your blog yesterday through ‘Hercules and the Unicorn’. Very striking post.

        Not a legal professional of any sort, if you decide to delete this comment for irrelevance, no offense taken and I’ll stay in the shallow end of the pool from now on. But what strikes me about you comment above is the contrast of the response you cite for “ignorance” in officers with the “ignorance is no excuse” canard often tossed at citizens who unintentionally run affowl of some law.

        I look forward to more of your writing.

        1. SHG Post author

          The contrast between the “canard” and reality is raised fairly often, as it’s pretty hard to rationalize. The only meaningful answer is that is one of the many legal fictions imposed by the system to allow it to function, hypocrisy notwithstanding. There just isn’t any logical explanation why the citizenry is held to a standard of knowledge the government won’t apply to its own.

          By the way, since you’re new, there are a little over 6000 posts here before you arrived, dealing with a great many issues in painful detail.

  2. That Anonymous Coward

    This reminds me of the recent story about [Ed. Note: Balance of comment deleted for utter irrelevance.]

    1. Sgt. Schultz

      I can’t believe what a prick that editor is. Here I was, reading the post, and running through my head the whole time was, “I wonder whether this reminds That Anonymous Coward of some recent unrelated story.” And now I will never know what that story was. I bet it was a really cool story, too.

  3. PaulaMarie Susi

    Putting aside the level of TSA stupidity, and what they get away with (anyone else tired of being sexually assaulted every time they go on vacation?)… I am at a complete loss as to Why? someone would put something so valuable in check-thru luggage.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s how the world functions today. Our lives exist digitally, and we carry them with us everywhere we go. Stupidly in so many respects, but it’s who we have become. There is a fundamental disconnect between pre-digital world law and post-digital world behavior. Something is going to have to give.

      1. DanQ

        I am not as optimistic. Technology isn’t as dependent on precedent and I don’t think the system could survive a Moore’s Law analog. Though it would sure make life interesting.

        In techno veritas?

        1. SHG Post author

          Some of the crypto guys here think the answer is tech, passwords, encryption, etc., largely because they can do it and don’t trust the law. I can’t see judges/court/laws allowing that to happen without a fight. Old law will drop everything it’s got on their heads when tech tries to out-maneuver the law. I don’t know who will win if that happens, but it will be bad for everyone.

    2. markm

      It’s too big for carry-on luggage. Some flutes made from modern materials may break down into several pieces so they fit into a carry-on case, but a handcarved one would probably be one piece and far too long to take into an airliner cabin. In any case, 13 of them would be far too bulky. The cello in the second example is even larger.

      So maybe it would be better to ship the instruments to your hotel via UPS, but that is considerably more trouble to arrange, and I am not sure even that would avoid TSA inspection.

      1. SHG Post author

        I don’t know that the bamboo flutes are the same as metal flutes. Do you know that or are you assuming? It’s never a good idea to assume, especially when the facts suggest otherwise.

  4. Pingback: Border agents vs. musical instruments - Overlawyered

  5. Canvasback

    Dumbasses don’t even know their Phragmites from their Poaceae. And yet they have no compunction about destroying a man’s living through their own obtuseness. Do you have a top ten list of preferable countries?

  6. John Barleycorn

    I take mild exception to tidying most of your argument to the “agents” juror or armed boarder cop.

    Those who did, done, do the-deed. The agents are indeed muscle and tendon but by no simple or small measure there by conscious design.

    1. SHG Post author

      There were a lot of people to sweep into this post, and I didn’t want to hurt any of their feelings by leaving them out.

      1. John Barleycorn


        My date with the new year and old nemuisses always puts disorder to curiosity shuffling through the tender.

        The Kafka-scope is always missing a few translucent tiles.

        The big wheel wobbling off a “real” plywood ramp on the entry repetitively has me landing just when I think I have a view.

        1. John Barleycorn

          ps. Tunes are a bit of a distraction indeed considering your strength and folly.

          But with a serious warm and slow smile. Happy New Year!

          The Judge could have put brown eyeshadow on the dogs nose.

Comments are closed.