Harp, The Victim

Quite a few people sent me the story of Seth Harp in the Intercept.

I SHOULD HAVE kept my mouth shut about the guacamole; that made things worse for me. Otherwise, what I’m about to describe could happen to any American who travels internationally. It happened 33,295 times last year.

My work as a journalist has taken me to many foreign countries, including frequent trips to Mexico. On May 13, I was returning to the U.S. from Mexico City when, passing through immigration at the Austin airport, I was pulled out of line for “secondary screening,” a quasi-custodial law enforcement process that takes place in the Homeland Security zone of the airport.

What happened to Harp was, his misguided snarky responses aside, quite outrageous, with a Customs and Border Patrol agent named Moncivias pulling him aside for “secondary screening.” It went downhill from there.

In retrospect, I was naive about the kind of agency CBP has become in the Trump era. Though I’ve reported several magazine stories in Mexico, none have been about immigration. Of course, I knew these were the guys putting kids in cages, separating refugee children from their parents, and that Trump’s whole shtick is vilifying immigrants, leading to many sad and ugly scenes at the border, including the farcical deployment of U.S. troops. But I complacently assumed that wouldn’t affect me directly, least of all in Austin. Later, I did remember reading a report in February about CBP targeting journalists, activists, and lawyers for scrutiny at ports of entry south of California, but I had never had a problem before, not in a lifetime of crossing the Texas-Mexico border scores of times on foot, by car, by plane, in a canoe, even swimming. This was the first time CBP had ever pulled me aside.

People who brought this to my attention did so as another example of CBP out of control, abusing the Fourth Amendment by rifling through Harp’s laptop and cellphone, pictures and files, everything, for hours, for no discernible reason. As a writer, Harp told his story well, replete with details, emotionally evocative, colorful and awful. His retelling of his story evokes anger. If you’re looking for something else to hate CBP about, it’s there for the reading.

But the paragraph above is what caught my eye. The problem with border searches is nothing new. It’s not a Trump thing, even though everything is now a Trump thing, even if it happened for years, administrations, before. Would he have felt better about it had there been a picture of Obama on the wall rather than Trump?

This is where woke people will argue about how it’s different now, worse, for trivial, false or irrelevant reasons. There are always minor details upon which those desperate to distinguish the same essential conduct perpetrated by a good guy from a bad guy. So you were only shot with five bullets instead of ten?

So why doesn’t Harp’s tale of personal woe give rise to the outrage it deserves? Isn’t this another clear demonstration of the wrongfulness of border searches, the outrageousness of seizing an American’s most intimate and personal information without any legitimate justification, violating his privacy and running roughshod over his rights as an American? Of course it is. It’s another terrible story. And Harp writes about its horrors because it happened to him. Not to you. Not to me. To him. Now it matters.

For more than a decade, the problems with border searches have appeared here. I’ve written about the law, applications to new and different people and objects as technology changed the landscape and court decisions dealing with this perverse rubric divorced from its pre-tech rationale. Given the state of the law on border searches of electronic devices, Judge Edward Korman issued a practical, if unsatisfactory, warning in Abidor v. Napolitano*:

This is enough to suggest that it would be foolish, if not irresponsible, for plaintiffs to store truly private or confidential information on electronic devices that are carried and used overseas.

We’ve been warned. Harp’s been warned too. Judge Korman didn’t intend to be mean to us by issuing this admonition, though he surely wasn’t being particularly kind either. Rather, he told lawyers that if they want to keep their privileged communications and information from the prying eyes of CBP, leave it home. If you carry it across a border, then you’re asking for trouble.

There hasn’t been any change in the law of border searches since then. There may well be more random secondary screenings of American citizens,** and there may well be greater arrogance by CBP agents who enjoy the support of an administration to bash a few heads for kicks.

But these are, at worst, petty distinctions. If you’re the person subject to secondary search, what real difference does it make to you whether they did the same to ten others that day or twenty. They did it to you, and that’s what matters to you. Misery doesn’t love company as much as it loves itself.

And that’s what’s wrong with Harp’s self-indulgent regurgitation of an old, well-worn problem that has been dissected and explained over and over to address each nuanced issue and wrong. Harp doesn’t write about a problem. He writes about his problem. Harp should have known. He’s a journalist. It was all there to be read, to be seen, to be known about and addressed. But he never bothered to know, or give a damn, until it happened to him.

Was he naive? That relieves him of responsibility, since naivete isn’t a shameful status. But for a reporter who crossed borders regularly, was it naive to be ignorant of the law, or what happened to tens of thousands of people annually, and has for as long as people crossed borders, and even more focused, crossed with computers and cellphones in hand? Is it naive that he missed all of this, was blissfully unaware that this was happening, until it happened to him?

Does it warrant a post here, regurgitating his story of self-indulgent misery at the hands of the now-even-more-despised-than-before CBP? He brings no new facts, no new issues, no new technology, no new legal issue to the table. The only thing new is that this time it was him. And now it’s a story worth telling.

Let’s all cry sad tears for the horrors Seth Harp endured, and it was horrible, but it was also the same as what Americans have endured for years. That this was Harp’s day to suffer doesn’t make it newsworthy, interesting or novel, but more of the same at a time when crying sad tears over each victim’s story has become an end in itself.

*Note that the defendant in the case was Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She was not in the Trump cabinet, for those keeping score.

**While it’s now politically incorrect to distinguish between American citizens and undocumented immigrants, because aren’t we all just human beings?. that’s pretty much a core responsibility at the border, where citizens and non-citizens are vetted. Unless and until we become one world, there will remain separate lines.

33 thoughts on “Harp, The Victim

  1. Turk

    Reading about a problem or knowing about a problem, is a far cry from actually experiencing that problem.

    He confesses the sin of knowing about a problem and not appreciating it (first they came for the socialists but I did not speak up because I was not a socialist…).

    To the extent his tale reaches people who had not heard about it before, and there are clearly very, very many, it was a terrific piece.

    1. SHG Post author

      Is the question whether he should have written about what happened to him or whether I should have written about it? Is the question whether there remain plenty of people who are ignorant of the law or whether the people who read SJ are ignorant of the law?

      1. Turk

        Is the question whether there remain plenty of people who are ignorant of the law or whether the people who read SJ are ignorant of the law?

        I think we’d agree that there are plenty in both categories.

        To the extent that some folks read about this stuff and get educated about issues, all the better.

      2. Jeff

        I’m surprised to see this article from a reporter at The Intercept, given that the site sprung out of the events surrounding Snowden. Certainly Glenn Greenwald is fully aware of the issues involved with being a reporter of inconvenient information, there’s a reason he lives and works outside the US.

        Having said that, you’re absolutely right. This isn’t new information, not unless I fell through a wormhole into 2000. Almost two decades is plenty of time to get acclimated to the PATRIOT Act.

        It’s unfortunate that this isn’t news any longer. Just like the But For Video series, this is something that while we’re aware (or we should be, anyway) that it’s happening, there is a point when it’s not beneficial to simply add to the noise in the subject.

        Sort of like what I’m doing here. I feel comfortable adding to the noise; you did it first.

          1. Jeff

            I’m unhappy to say, but no. Not anymore. I used to but it’s not new anymore. Also, I’m not young and easy to outrage any longer.

            I’ll avoid the rant about the frog in the pot of boiling water as it’s off topic. The point is that this injustice isn’t the fault of Darth Cheeto, but our own fear of the bogeyman.

            1. SHG Post author

              Reliance on emotional words, like “blood boiling,” “heartbreaking” or “infuriating,” are the antithesis of “educating” (as Turk would like to put it) readers. These are appeals to emotions, logical fallacies that play to people’s feelings at the expense of educating them.

              I’m seeing a lot of otherwise smart people going for cheap thrills with appeals to emotions.

    2. Ron

      His story made this out to be a Trump problem and reflected absolutely nothing about the law of border searches, making every teary-eyed reader stupider for having read it. Even though you’re not a criminal defense or immigration lawyer, you applaud people being made stupider if it serves you ends?

      Sad stories are all the rage these days. It’s so much more fun to cry than do the hard work of thinking.

      1. SHG Post author

        It’s interesting to watch smart people succumb to the low expectations of tribalism, dismissing or rationalizing away the problems with a sad story from their team when they would rip to shreds the other team for doing the same. We either apply critical thought to all stories, no matter how sad, or we just go with whichever one makes us cry more. I’ve made my choice.

      2. Curtis

        Unfortunately, the only way to get progressives involved is to pretend it a Trump problem. They are not pro-civil rights unless it fits their politics.

  2. Clark Neily

    Information doesn’t need to be novel or earth-shattering to be useful. On the contrary, though I was fully aware of these facts, I found quite salutary this vivid and personal vignette illustrating how extraordinarily petty and thin-skinned government officials can be, and showing how our system of near-zero accountability for law enforcement enables them to wield their god-like like power over mere muggles with impunity. Old hat? Sure. And therefore a story not worth relating? Hardly.

  3. Richard Kopf


    Last year, for the first time ever my wife and I, together with two of her sisters and their husbands, travelled to Europe by ship landing in Spain. We then flew to London to return to ‘Merica.

    In London, I was pulled out of the line and thoroughly searched by a huge English follower of the Sikh faith and another English fellow. I was treated well but searched thoroughly. The search was thorough enough that other passengers seemed to stare. Eventually, on to Chicago.

    In Chicago, I was pulled out of the line again after showing my passport. I was tired. As I was also worried about missing our plane back to flyover country I pulled out my government ID with all sorts of security features and a photo of my ugly mug proclaiming that I was a federal judge. That mattered not at all.

    This time the search was far more extensive and long, taking about an hour. It included a rather intrusive pat down by a huge man. I was required to partially disrobe. Standing there with my shirt off and shoes taken away I was thoroughly perplexed. When you are in your 70s and naturally stupid looking logic suggested I was not a terrorist. But it got worse.

    My government laptop was taken away and an agent tried to boot it up. Because it literally takes five passwords, they couldn’t open it so I was required to unlock it. Unfortunately, the nitrate sniffer alerted. Was it my pipe tobacco? I don’t know.

    A supervisor from the main office on the second level of O’hare was called to come down and took a long time. He was a large imposing man in a nice tweed sports coat. Upon his arrival, the group, which had grown in number, debated what to do next. The laptop was put through another scanner and sniffer. Again, a sniffer alert.

    I was extensively questioned by the supervisor. Why, I was asked, did I have one ticket from Barcelona to London and another from London to Chicago. I had no clue since the travel people booked the flights.

    Finally, after more questioning, I was gruffly let go by the supervisor. Before I left, I had the temerity to ask what was the big deal. I was told I was flagged in Barcelona because I was flying on two tickets rather than one to return to the US. It was suggested that I never do that again. Since it was clear to me that I was at fault for not knowing this travel tip I slunk away with a very pissed off wife trailing along–what, she asked, was the hell wrong with me. I knew enough not to reply.

    Then we hurried to catch the small regional jet that apparently by design provides a terrifying ride. And very stale pretzels.

    Why do I tell you this story? Because I’m special, of course.

    All the best.


    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      There is one obvious aspect of your travail that makes you anecdote stand out: you’re a fed judge. You pulled rank. They didn’t give a damn. That’s something.

      When I was a little shit, I took the ferry from Tangiers to Algerciras, Spain with my buddy, Donald. We got djellabas in the casbah, and were travelling as Ali Babba and Shiek Yerboty. The Moroccan immigration guys didn’t share our sense of humor, and did a strip search on the pier. Notably, I was not then, nor am I now, a federal judge.

      1. Richard Kopf


        Well, now you know how far being a federal judge will get you. Not very far. That’s a good thing.

        Anyway, anecdotes proving victimhood are the coin of the current realm. I’ve joined a support group to deal with my special trauma–fear of flying.

        Oh, wait, that the title of Erica Jong’s book which became famously controversial for its portrayal of female sexuality and figured in the development of second-wave feminism. Damn it, now I must find another support group. Suggestions?

        All the best.


        1. SHG Post author

          I have no fear of flying, but I loved that book.

          I’ve got to admit, I’m really surprised that they didn’t cut you a break. Impressed that they showed no favoritism, but shocked because it’s just so ridiculous.

          1. Richard Kopf


            Nobody, either in London or Chicago, was nasty. Slightly officious, sure. But professional.

            I, too, was impressed that my status as a judge meant nothing. By the way, that was the first time ever that I played my judge card. I have no excuse other than that I was tired and worried about missing a flight home.

            What this experience did teach me is this: Air travel in general, and international air travel specifically, has become the equivalent of the hunger games.

            All the best.


  4. David

    Granted, Harp’s story was self-serving and self-indulgent, and substantively inaccurate, but it was still powerful (as you can see by how it affected Turk and Clark). The power of an emotional story is undeniable, even if it’s flawed. If the story can be used to educate for sound reasons, why not find a way to make it serve that greater purpose than spank the writer for his deliberate ignorance?

    In other words, so what if the writer wants us to cry for his personal misery, if there is a higher and better use to which his story can be used? You don’t have to like it to make better use of it.

  5. Black Bellamy

    Ha ha ha so snarky! So edgy! Man he really held his own agains the brutal oppressors!

    Oh, wait…

    I am a sex trafficker* and so I am intimately acquainted with the secondary inspection room at EWR. One thing that really helps me move the sex trafficking inspection along is being super nice to the personnel there. When they ask me about the sex and the trafficking, I don’t get all sarcastic and witty. I don’t demand shit and I don’t complain. I don’t get up and try to see what they’re writing on the screen or get all jumpy because they took my property.

    *My wife shares some identifying data with a victim. That makes me her pimp.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m sure there’s a point you were trying to make in there, but maybe you could, you know, actually say whatever it is you’re trying to say?

  6. Gregory Smith

    Your points about tribalism, etc. are valid but the suggestion that the problem was unrecignised until it was committed under Trump’s administration are not entirely accurate. Amongst other initiatives, Sen. Patrick Leahy has repeatedly proposed legislation (in his role on the foreign relations committee) that would make explicit a range of restrictions on the CBP that include expressly forbidding suspicionless searches of traveller electronics, arbitrary detentions, coercion etc. Unfortunately, none of these legislative initiatives made it out of committee. But they date back almost 20 years.

    1. SHG Post author

      As thrilled as I am to have you validate my “points about tribalism,” because you’re special, that its unrecognized is by the public, not Congress. Focus.

  7. cthulhu

    Was gonna post the Eagles’ “On the Border” (it has lots of paranoia) but that’s one band that works really hard to keep their stuff off teh intertoobs, so it’s time for the great Chris Whitley.

Comments are closed.