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Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2001 / 27 Mar-Cheshvan Tishrei 5762

Philip Terzian

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Throwing away the key -- AMERICANS like to imagine themselves in the image of John Wayne, but under duress, they sometimes tend to resemble Don Knotts. I mean the Don Knotts who, as Barney Fife, would disguise his nervousness as deputy sheriff by brandishing his pistol with shaking hand, throwing the confused or innocent in jail, and threatening life imprisonment for parking violations.

A few cases from the war on terrorism come to mind. In Kentucky, two students at Murray State University, Amy Wood and Erin Creighton, are accused of mailing a letter with "Arabic-looking writing" on the envelope, and containing powdered sugar, to a friend. In Maryland, a man named Anthony Mancuso is charged with sprinkling white powder around the office of a co-worker at Financial Initial Systems in Rockville.

After the contents of the letter with "Arabic-looking writing" leaked onto a clerk, postal operations in Murray were halted, and the civil authorities went into an anthrax panic. When the two students came forward to explain their prank, they were promptly arrested and charged with mailing a "threatening communication," punishable by up to five years in prison. Mr. Mancuso is less fortunate. His employer shut down the offices when the powder was discovered, and in the words of a federal prosecutor, "the whole operation was halted and the result was seriously disruptive." Now charged with threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction, Mr. Mancuso faces life imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

As one who appreciates a sense of humor, I am aware that jokes can go too far, at times, and that bad judgment must be punished. But even if we agree that there are certain "jokes" that are manifestly unfunny, even (perhaps intentionally) cruel, are we equally convinced that imprisonment is the appropriate response? A destructive hoax played on the population at large is one thing, but a private joke in execrable taste is quite another. Prosecutors are never happier than when they can, in the words of Prof. Jonathan Turley, "hoist the wretch for all the other potential hoaxers to see." But prosecutors are equally famous for their doctrinaire instincts and absence of proportion. What they exercise is power, and power with the full support of the government. Such power, as the Founders well knew, is exercised best with restraint, checks and balances, and not the plaudits of the mob.

Consider, in that sense, the experience of Cornelia Roessler, a 33-year-old Berlin businesswoman who, early last month, was returning to Germany from a Florida vacation with a friend. Unexpectedly shunted, in the standard airline fashion, to Dulles airport outside Washington, Miss Roessler was subject to repeated inspections of her carry-on luggage (and attendant delays) by the people who are paid to find weapons and contraband. At some moment, when one of the inspectors was devouring her gym bag, and rummaging about in an underwear pocket, Miss Roessler's patience was finally exhausted.

"Do you really think you're going to find a bomb in there?" she asked, in exasperated tones.

You can imagine the rest. Sarcasm expressed in public, combined with Miss Roessler's invocation of the word "bomb," resulted in her arrest by the airport authorities, and a night spent in the Loudoun County jail amidst roaches and vomit. Released the following day, and given leave to proceed to the airport and return home, Miss Roessler found herself arrested yet again at the Dulles terminal -- this time by the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- and taken to nearby Alexandria for incarceration.

On this occasion the cost of Miss Roessler's sarcasm had been raised to the level of terrorism, and a grand jury, directed by the local federal prosecutor, indicted her for making a bomb threat. Ordered to surrender her passport, and marooned in hotels while awaiting trial, she faced five years in prison for asking one plaintive question.

In Miss Roessler's case, the ending is happy, more or less. The prosecutors seem finally to have recognized that this law-abiding citizen of a friendly NATO country had made no bomb threat, had not even interfered with airport law enforcement; but had expressed understandable annoyance at incompetence, exercised her right to explain herself in public, and posed no threat to any traveler or officious clerk. She pleaded to a lesser charge, paid a fine, and flew home -- full of stories, no doubt, about justice in America.

You can understand a sense of insecurity at airports, and in times of crisis, people must adapt to changing rules. But the cause of freedom abroad is not served by the erosion of freedom in these precincts. Throwing people into jail as an object lesson doesn't fortify the homeland, and will only impress Osama bin Laden with evidence of panic, uncertainty and fear.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal