I Can Die Happy Now, Or More on Being Rude to CBP Officers
Phuket Island, Thailand
Amy Alkon, the Advice Goddess herself, has linked to my blog post about refusing to answer questions from Customs and Border Protection officers and, in the comments, defends some of what I have said. Swoon.
It's unclear where Alkon would fall in the debate, airing in the comments, about being curt with law enforcement officials. Alkon is such a fan of civility that she wrote a book called I See Rude People (pictured) and probably has a thought-provoking opinion on the matter.
Civility should be reserved for people who are treating you with respect and as equals. The CBP officers are treating returning U.S. citizens as criminal suspects, are asking invasive questions, will eff with you if you assert your rights, and are hiding the fact that citizens have an absolute right of re-entry and a right not to answer questions.
A common police tactic is to begin questioning as if it were a conversation, lulling the suspect -- and you, at CBP checkpoints, are a criminal suspect -- into revealing information that (a) you don't have to supply and (b) can be used against you. In this situation, law enforcement is using social norms of politesse as a weapon. You can be mannerly in your response but, given the inherently adversarial nature of the police-suspect relationship, you can be short, curt and rude to that officer without it being a reflection of how you treat people who did not chose to hold a job badgering citizens.
During such encounters, the police officer's display of manners is phony, manipulative and deceptive. Why does he deserve actual politeness in return?
Plus, as I mentioned earlier, a gruff, unambiguous response to CBP questioning makes it clear that you are not waiving your rights. Politeness can easily lead to a situation in which the officer claims that, after asserting your right to silence, you then voluntarily relinquished it because you kept on talking so as not to seem rude.
CBP officers who ask you questions -- after you've provided proof of citizenship and a written customs declaration -- are not entitled to politeness under a social contract theory. They haven't paid their half of the bill.
Another Point: There is nothing "ruder" than a cross-examination in a criminal trial. The attorney, whether the prosecutor or the defender, will attempt to paint the witness as stupid, blind, deaf, forgetful and mendacious. If it's you in the dock, you want your lawyer to be as "rude" as possible to the testifying officer.
To my mind, the encounter with a CBP officer is not played under the normal rules of civility but under the rules that would apply in a criminal court trial -- since that's exactly where your answers could lead. Since the courtroom rules of evidence apply during the encounter, so can the courtroom rules of "rudeness."
In any event, if rudeness means that I exercise my rights and remind the petit gendarme that his powers are limited, I will be rude.