Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: None Are Safe from the State’s Plundering Parasites
“Is anyone present carrying more than ten marks, or planning to take out of the country any foreign money, gold, jewels, or other valuables?” demanded the German customs inspector after boarding the Innsbruck-bound train. “Any violation of the law will be punished with penal servitude –special cases by death.”
Freya Roth, a single woman in her 20s traveling with her mother and younger brother, produced her passport and handed it to the inspector. After the document was stamped, the truculent bureaucrat noticed the young lady’s luggage.
“Whose suitcase is that?” he snapped, his voice colored with an implied threat. “Take it down – open it.”
“It isn’t locked,” Freya said quietly, her brows drawn together in worried puzzlement. Before she had finished the sentence the inspector had torn open the luggage and started to paw through it. A comrade noticed a large bound volume on the shelf above Freya’s seat. He retrieved it and began to pore over its handwritten pages.
“What is that – code?” the policeman inquired of Freya.
“No – it’s a physiological treatise,” she replied, proudly explaining that it had been written by her late father, Professor Victor Roth.
Radiating hostile disapproval, the inspector handed the manuscript to a Gestapo officer who had been looming in the background, a silent monolith of murderous menace.
“Why are you taking this out of the country?” the officer barked at Freya. “You intend on publishing it abroad?”
Freya tried to explain that she kept the book with her because it was her father’s last work, which was enough to implicate her as an enemy of the State.
“I can’t take the responsibility of allowing you to cross the border with this document,” sniffed the officer as if he owned Freya and everything in her possession. “This is a matter that can only be decided by my superior.”
Freya was taken to a local police station where she was detained for five days for possession of contraband – “a seditious production sustaining a theory destructive to the new ideals.”
“You belong – in part – to the German race, but by your action you show yourself unworthy to represent that race abroad,” the police commander explained to Freya, alluding to her paternal Jewish ancestry. “You will report to the police daily. Let me warn you to be extremely careful in your conduct, and in your contacts. That is all.”
The traumatized woman was “released” to life as an inmate in an open-air prison. She had been condemned and dispossessed without a trial as the result of a warrantless search of her effects during a routine train trip.
Freya’s Nazi-era experience, depicted in the 1940 film The Mortal Storm, was a fictional parable intended to shock its American audience: Imagine what it would be like to live in a country where police could board a train, rifle through your luggage, confiscate anything of value they found, and detain you indefinitely if they found suspected contraband in your possession.
I don’t know if Aaron Heuser, a mathematician from Eugene, Oregon, is familiar with “The Mortal Storm.” He doesn’t need to see the movie – he has lived it.
As Heuser recounted to Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic magazine, during an Amtrak trip from Eugene to Washington, D.C. last fall, he received an unwelcome visit in his sleeper compartment by a DEA agent whose comportment was indistinguishable from that of the cinematic Nazi officials who terrorized Freya Roth.
The DEA agent addressed Heuser by name and claimed that his trip had raised numerous “red flags” – specifically, that “I had a sleeper car, was traveling alone, and did not check my luggage.”
When the officious pest demanded access to the sleeper compartment and Heuser’s personal effects, the traveler refused. Undeterred, the agent informed Heuser “that he was going to bring a dog, walk it by my room, and that if it alerted, my room would be searched. He told me that I could not argue this and that I was not allowed to be present for the search.”
Like nearly everything else that emerges from the tax-devouring skull cave of a DEA official, that claim was a lie. Heuser had every right to be present during the search, but the agent insisted that he absent himself because “the dog might bite me.” In retrospect, and perhaps at the time, that statement could be seen as a threat garbed in the unpersuasive disguise of solicitude.
As Heuser strode toward the dining car, he was stalked by a second DEA operative who tried to get him to leave the train, where he would be surrounded by other law enforcement officers.
“The officer followed me, telling me that they know I am transporting drugs, and if I have any for personal use, they do not care, and it would be easier if I just told them,” Heuser told The Atlantic. “I said that was nice to know, then kept walking.” Yet another DEA operative tried to gain access by pretending that “someone was hiding in my bathroom.”
When Heuser was finally allowed to return to his compartment, “I found my backpack moved and open, and my wallet, which was set down on the room table, had $60 missing.” He was told by a dining car attendant that “Amtrak is forced to give passenger info to the Feds, that the DEA comes on every trip, usually arresting someone in the sleeping car or taking all their money.”
That Amtrak employee did not engage in hyperbole, as Joseph Rivers can testify. The 22-year-old native of Romulus, Michigan, was robbed by DEA agents when his Los Angeles-bound train was stopped and searched in Albuquerque. Rivers, who entertained ambitions of becoming a music video producer, was carrying his life savings — $16,000 in cash – in a bank envelope.
Behaving precisely like his fictional Nazi analogues from “The Mortal Storm,” the DEA agent confiscated every penny of Rivers’ life savings without arresting him or charging him with a crime. Under the Justice Department’s civil asset forfeiture program, possession of large sums of cash or other exceptional wealth – “gold, jewels, or other valuables,” as the customs inspector put it in the film – is sufficiently suspicious to justify confiscation.