January 22, 2009

Less ugly Americans

I'M HAPPY TO SEE that Mr. Obama is reining in some illegal government activities that flourished during the last few administrations. For a start, he’s closing Gitmo, banning torture, and doing away with illegal wiretapping. I’d be even happier if he’d go one step further and put a stop to warrantless searches of private pleasure boats and commercial fishing boats by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard rides roughshod across the world’s oceans as well as the U.S. coastline in direct contravention of our Constitution. Militaristic armed officers and crews board any vessel they like, including small sailboats, forcing the crew to stand under watchful guard while they search the boat, ostensibly for breaches of the safety regulations. But if they find as much as one marijuana seed or anything that could possibly be deemed drug paraphernalia, they are empowered not only to arrest the whole crew but also to seize the vessel and all its contents.

These warrantless searches by gung-ho gun-toting Coasties have earned the United States the title of Bully of the World’s Shipping. Long before I became an American citizen I was warned about them by round-the-world sailors on small yachts. And in 1987, sure enough, while I was emigrating to the States aboard my own British-flagged 30-foot yacht, I was accosted on the High Seas 250 miles northwest of Puerto Rico by the U.S. Wainwright, a 547-foot-long guided missile cruiser, temporarily doing duty for the Coast Guard. She closed in on us and ordered me and my American wife and son to gather in the cockpit. They grilled us at length by VHF radio and then let us proceed, so we were luckier than most because we weren’t boarded by an armed party; but I can’t begin to tell you how intimidated and insecure we felt, and how resentful afterward that Americans imagined they had the perfect right to threaten, interrogate, board, and search innocent unarmed vessels on the High Seas.

There was plenty of resentment at home, too, and a Californian fisherman named Jim Blaes became a national hero in 1996 when he grabbed his gun and refused to let the Coast Guard board his 36-foot fishboat, Helja. He’d had a gutful of the Coast Guard’s surprise “safety” boardings.

“I was sick of the Coast Guard harassing me,” he said. “I’ve been boarded 40 times in the past nine years and I’ve repeatedly told them the boardings violate my Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches undertaken without suspicion that a crime has been committed.” This time, the Coast Guard backed off, and let shorebound justice authorities take up the case against him.

All these incidents were part of the Bush (41) administration’s campaign of Zero Tolerance for drug runners, of course. It’s still in operation today nearly a quarter-century later. And what success has it had? Well, you tell me. Look around. Has the supply of drugs decreased because of the Coast Guard’s illegal harassment of yachts and fishing boats? I’ll bet it’s no more difficult to buy cannabis or crack now than it was before they started.

And here’s the irony: if Americans didn’t want drugs, if they didn’t buy them, if there were no market here for them, the Coast Guard wouldn’t have to act like the maritime Gestapo. But this is a democracy, right? The people want drugs, right? And one way or another, they’ll get them — just as they got liquor when it was banned.

Of course, it’s only fair to point out that this wasn’t the Coast Guard’s idea in the first place. Zero Tolerance came from Washington, D.C., and our elected representatives, the so-called guardians of the hallowed Constitution. The Coasties are merely doing their duty, even if they do it with unnecessary relish.

It’s unfair, it’s unpopular, it’s illegal and it gives the United States a bad name overseas. It’s time to stop random Coast Guard boardings of yachts and fishing boats; time to respect the Constitution again, and the inalienable rights of the people. Yes we can. And if we can, why don’t we?

Today’s Thought
It has been said of the world’s history hitherto that might makes right. It is for us and for our time to reverse the maxim, and to say that right makes might. —Abraham Lincoln.

Thirty days hath September,
And all the rest I can’t remember.
Why bother my mind with this at all
When the calendar hangs right there on the wall?

No comments: