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Border Patrol checkpoints deep in the interior of the United States raise the specter of Soviet-style surveillance.
by William Marvel    Intervention Magazine
Entered into the database on Tuesday, May 17th, 2005 @ 02:04:05 MST


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At twelve or thirteen I read an abridged version of Lés Miserables, which gave me my earliest impressions of Napoleonic France. Of all the brutality in that novel, I was most disturbed by the discovery that citizens of that nation and era had to carry passports just to travel between cities or provinces. For a boy who had, on several occasions, already traversed fifteen states with his parents, without benefit of passports or interference by authorities, the restrictions placed on the movement of nineteenth-century Frenchmen somehow seemed even more oppressive than the Draconian justice system.

World War II movies depicting suspicious, sneering German officers augmented my distaste for uniformed officials who stop unoffending citizens with a demand for their "papers," and Cold War images of similarly intrusive Soviet soldiers cemented that aversion. Only after I started touring my own country, by thumb and by rattletrap station wagon, did I learn that American police tried to imitate their totalitarian counterparts by stopping people whose looks they didn’t like for "routine checks." The U.S. Supreme Court later declared such arbitrary conduct unconstitutional, ruling that police have no right to demand identification without probable cause. However, that authoritarian practice is now sneaking back into service under the excuse of protecting the public from terrorism.

While in Vermont early this month I learned that the U.S. Border Patrol has established a "temporary" checkpoint on Interstate 91, at White River Junction. It might seem strange for the Border Patrol to begin monitoring the nation’s interior, but a legal loophole extends its jurisdiction a hundred miles from any international boundary, and the agency that cannot even control the Mexican border is using that technicality to dilute its effectiveness even further. Like all such governmental impositions, this one was supposed to be temporary, but now—predictably—the feds want to make it permanent.

Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, opposes the measure for an assortment of reasons, including the considerable inconvenience and impediment to intrastate and interstate transportation. Vermont’s governor, meanwhile, has expressed support for the checkpoint on the absurd grounds that it provides stimulus for the local economy through the score-or-so of federal agents who will presumably live nearby. By His Excellency’s reasoning, all of Vermont’s highways should be encumbered with permanent roadblocks for the federal paychecks they would draw.

Apparently the latest governor of Vermont is willing to subject his constituents to Soviet-style interference in return for a few bucks: so much for the tradition of Ethan Allen. Let us hope, at least, that the White River Junction checkpoint is not manned from the Island Pond garrison. For the past three decades that crossing has continuously hosted at least one unnecessarily nasty guard, as though to remind returning Americans how unpleasant United States officials can be in comparison to their Canadian counterparts.

In an interview with Vermont Public Radio a Border Patrol spokesman recently justified his agency’s invasion of the American interior by citing the figure of 650 people who have been "detained" since the White River Junction roadblock was established. He mentioned the arrest of no terrorist suspects, which he would certainly have boasted loudly, and the absence of such boasts suggests that the preponderance of those detentions involved innocent travelers victimized by the minions of a paranoid government. It would be easy to imagine some independent-minded citizen being held indefinitely for expressing his outrage at the imposition of a border-style interrogation as he tried to make his way from Hanover to Claremont in time for a meeting.

Already the "land of the free" has stripped its citizens of the right to travel freely to and from Canada without a passport. Before the logic of a mid-state border checkpoint is taken very far, we will be expected to carry passports at all times, like Napoleonic subjects. Here in Carroll County, New Hampshire, every town falls within the Border Patrol’s hundred-mile Canadian buffer, and at any time our tourist community could be completely encircled by such obnoxious disincentives to the traveling public.

William Marvel is a free-lance writer and U.S. Army veteran living in northern New Hampshire. His books include Andersonville: The Last Depot and Lee's Last Retreat and The Flight to Appomattox. You can sent your comments to William at Bill@interventionmag.com.

The White River Junction checkpoint certainly has little to do with terrorist prevention, for there are simply too many routes around that section of Interstate 91. Instead, this extraordinary precedent may have no greater object that to immerse the public gradually into authoritarianism. Once enough people have passed submissively through our own version of the Brandenburg Gate, an accustomed public will more readily accept the shadow of a police state from border to border.