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Being polite when the alternative will make things worse

Being polite when the alternative will make things worse

We all occasionally come up against people in positions of authority who are doing something which displeases us. In these cases there is a temptation to fight back. This is generally not entirely fruitful, as these people often have the power of government behind them, and, short term, there is not a lot you can do other than try to keep stress levels low.

Obviously, in a perfect world there would be no abuse of power, but ours is a less-than-perfect world, and power is routinely abused. Our current favorite was the family entering the U.S. that was delayed for several hours because one of the family members was on the suspected-terrorist list. While the father understood that a diplomatic passport was not actually carte blanche for terrorism, nor reason to abandon all administrative procedures, he did feel that someone should have questioned the likelihood of his five- year-old daughter actually being a terrorist, as opposed to there perhaps being another person with the same name. He was apparently very verbal on the subject. While his view might make obvious sense, his attitude cost them several hours of waiting before they were allowed into the country. The delay could have been avoided by being appropriately servile.

The situation was similar in the arrest of a pilot who had tweezers in his carry-on kit. He was told he couldn’t take tweezers on the plane because they could be used to pick the lock on the cockpit door He pointed out that this (holding up the key) was the actual key to the cockpit, and, since he would be the one flying the plane, having or not having tweezers made no difference. While nobody considered him a threat, they did consider him an arrogant annoyance, and eventually arrested him for mopery and dopery in the airways, or some such.

Two travelers recently did a small experiment. As they traveled, one would be very polite and compliant while the other would be argumentative and in a hurry. Without fail the one who was quite and compliant sailed through security. The argumentative one was stopped and given a thorough secondary screening. It was security-as-retribution. At one of the checkpoints the cohort claiming to be in a hurry was singled out for further screening. After 14 minutes of standing around waiting for the secondary screening, he demanded a supervisor, and asked for expedited service since, by count, over 70 people had since passed through screening while he was still standing there. He was told to “shut up and we’ll get to you.” When the supplemental screening did occur the screeners moved slowly. Lest there be any doubt that this was abuse screening, we note that they asked him to remove his shoes, and, even though he was wearing no socks, they began to wand his bare feet with the handheld metal detector. Twenty-seven minutes after he had passed primary screening, he was cleared from the supplemental screening. The experiment was considered to be satisfactorily concluded.

This incident came on the heels of the revelation that a pair of foreign nationals had forged federal ID, and had, for a fairly substantial period of time on a substantial number of flights, politely approached security with their false ID, and had been being escorted, loaded guns and all, around the checkpoints and onto their planes. Putting aside the issues of whether randomly armed passengers make flying safer or more dangerous, and the issue of whether airport security is intended to be anything more than security theatre, this incident (discovered inadvertently when one of the men accidentally left his jacket and ID somewhere, and which the TSA noted did not indicate a compromise of their checkpoint system, as the checkpoints had been bypassed, not compromised), shows the importance of politeness.

A fluke, you say? It was reported that on 27 August 2003, two men dressed as computer technicians and carrying tool bags entered the intelligence centre at Sydney International Airport. After supplying false names and signatures, they were given access to the top-security mainframe room, where they disconnected two computers, which they wheeled out of the building. You can rest assured they were polite and friendly, not truculent.

Lest you think that only civilians suffer from abuse, in another incident a car full of men speeding down the thruway noticed that a New Jersey State trooper had stopped a driver, who was beating the stuffing out of the trooper. Being good citizens, they stopped and subdued the attacker. Other troopers showed up, and promptly arrested the helpers for illegal possession of weapons. The rescuing felons, still wearing their New York area police department shooting team uniforms, were on their way back from a police pistol match in Pennsylvania, and had neglected to properly store their weapons, unloaded and inaccessible, in the trunk of their car, as required by New Jersey law. Astonishingly (we say astonishingly because a bust of six heavily armed criminals is a feather in any officer’s cap, and very difficult to pass up), they (the helpful police officers) were not actually booked.

A pair of Los Angeles Sheriffs had it even worse. They were taken, in full uniform, from their fully-marked cruiser and proned-out on the ground at gunpoint until a supervisor who was a little less caught up in inter-agency rivalry showed up, at which point they were released. The result of this was a hysterically funny video prepared by LASD, and sent to LAPD, on how to identify a member of the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department.

The point of this is not that abuse of power happens: We take that for granted in this less-than-perfect world. The point is that, from a practical point of view, no matter whether you are a civilian or a law enforcement officer or a diplomat, you can’t expect to slide your way out of these situations by being truculent or overbearing. You need to be prepared to go out of your way to be friendly and helpful and, most of all, patient, with every law enforcement and security officer that you encounter, and deal with any complaints or issues later, after the fact, not after being arrested.

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