I tried mailing a document to a friend in Arizona. It got returned. Why?
We regret that your mail is being returned to you because of heightened security measures. All domestic mail, weighing 16 ounces or over, that bears stamps …. MUST be presented to a retail clerk at a post office.
Like “Chemical Ripi” I was sending a manuscript, but I had used a standard priority flat-rate envelope with the proper postage — just like two other manuscripts I had sent out the same way. What caused this one to be returned? Why did I have to wait three-quarters of an hour on line at the post office to mail this one? And, most importantly, how does this make us safer?
The funny thing is that I’m sure I probably could have just mailed it out again from a different mailbox and it would have gone through. Security measures are generally applied randomly and inefficiently. Take, for instance, credit card signatures, or the woman who carried a butcher knife through airport security. Sometimes they don’t make any sense at all — like the fact that my bag is searched everytime I go to the New York Public Library. If I was trying to bring something illegal into the library, like a gun, why would I put it in my bag? (They don’t do body searches.)
We live with a certain amount of such absurdity. At some level we know that it is more about dicipline than about safety. There is no point at being upset at the underpaid low level functionaries who enforce and carry out these rules. But sometimes you wish you could just ask “Why?” So I was very happy to read the story of dot-com millionaire John Gilmore, who can’t fly on airplanes because he refuses to show ID:
John Gilmore’s splendid isolation began July 4, 2002, when, with defiance aforethought, he strolled to the Southwest Airlines counter at Oakland Airport and presented his ticket.
The gate agent asked for his ID.
Gilmore asked her why.
It is the law, she said.
Gilmore asked to see the law.
Nobody could produce a copy. To date, nobody has. The regulation that mandates ID at airports is “Sensitive Security Information.” The law, as it turns out, is unavailable for inspection.
What started out as a weekend trip to Washington became a crawl through the courts in search of an answer to Gilmore’s question: Why?
… At the heart of Gilmore’s stubbornness is the worry about the thin line between safety and tyranny.
“Are they just basically saying we just can’t travel without identity papers? If that’s true, then I’d rather see us go through a real debate that says we want to introduce required identity papers in our society rather than trying to legislate it through the back door through regulations that say there’s not any other way to get around,” Gilmore said. “Basically what they want is a show of obedience.”
Sometimes I think the only way to respond is with creative anarchy, such as that exhibited by “a couple of students from Cornwall [who] are intent on making American criminal history by spending their summer breaking as many US laws as possible.” They’ve chosen laws from the site DumbLaws.com and elsewhere, laws that are on the books, but rarely enforced because they make so little sense:
Starting in the liberal state of California, they hope to evade the attention of local police officers when they ride a bike in a swimming pool and curse on a crazy-golf course.
In the far more conservative — and landlocked — state of Utah, they will risk the penitentiary when they hire a boat and attempt to go whale-hunting.
If they manage to outwit state troopers in Utah, and perhaps federal agents on their trail, they will be able to take a deserved, but nevertheless illegal, rest when they have a nap in a cheese factory in South Dakota.
Such activity is likely to undermine the very fabric of society!