Walter Soehnge is a retired Texas schoolteacher who traveled north with his wife,
Deana, saw summer change to fall in Rhode Island and decided this was a place
to stay for a while.
So the Soehnges live in Scituate now and Walter sometimes has breakfast at
the Gentleman Farmer in Scituate Village, where he has passed the test and become
a regular despite an accent that is definitely not local.
And it was there, at his usual table last week, that he told me that he was
"madder than a panther with kerosene on his tail."
He says things like that. Texas does leave its mark on a man.
What got him so upset might seem trivial to some people who have learned to
accept small infringements on their freedom as just part of the way things are
in this age of terror-fed paranoia. It's that "everything changed after
But not Walter.
"We're a product of the '60s," he said. "We believe government
should be way away from us in that regard."
He was referring to the recent decision by him and his wife to be responsible,
to do the kind of thing that just about anyone would say makes good, solid financial
They paid down some debt. The balance on their JCPenney Platinum MasterCard
had gotten to an unhealthy level. So they sent in a large payment, a check for
And an alarm went off. A red flag went up. The Soehnges' behavior was
And all they did was pay down their debt. They didn't call a suspected
terrorist on their cell phone. They didn't try to sneak a machine gun through
They just paid a hefty chunk of their credit card balance. And they
learned how frighteningly wide the net of suspicion has been cast.
After sending in the check, they checked online to see if their account had
been duly credited. They learned that the check had arrived, but the amount
available for credit on their account hadn't changed.
So Deana Soehnge called the credit-card company. Then Walter called.
"When you mess with my money, I want to know why," he said.
They both learned the same astounding piece of information about the little
things that can set the threat sensors to beeping and blinking.
They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center,
that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment.
And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment,
Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn't move until the threat
alert is lifted.
Walter called television stations, the American Civil Liberties Union and me.
And he went on the Internet to see what he could learn. He learned about changes
in something called the Bank Privacy Act.
"The more I'm on, the scarier it gets," he said. "It's scary
how easily someone in Homeland Security can get permission to spy."
Eventually, his and his wife's money was freed up. The Soehnges were apparently
found not to be promoting global terrorism under the guise of paying a credit-card
bill. They never did learn how a large credit card payment can pose a security
But the experience has been a reminder that a small piece of privacy has been
surrendered. Walter Soehnge, who says he holds solid, middle-of-the-road American
beliefs, worries about rights being lost.
"If it can happen to me, it can happen to others," he said.
(Bob Kerr is a columnist for The Providence Journal.