Someone is lying or badly mistaken about what happened at Long Beach Airport on May 22 because the version of the events told by pilot David Perry and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency are both divergent and adamantly defended by both parties. But regardless of who held which weapons and for what purpose, the most interesting thing about the incident is the light it shines on the way general aviation is viewed by the country's increasingly muscular security apparatus. Out of the shadows, the Customs and Border Protection agency looms as a confident and capable paramilitary force with the ability to take command over local law enforcement agencies and use them in ways that their own operational limitations might not allow.
We'll leave it up to the courts to decide if the Constitution or Perry's civil rights were violated in the aggressive and intimidating ramp check he and his passengers underwent that day. But regardless of the legality of the incident, the reality is that GA pilots planning to cross the border should anticipate this kind of attention, even though the CBP insists that the Long Beach case was "slightly unusual" in its tone because of a "heightened alert."
Although we'll probably never know exactly what prompted heavily armed law enforcement personnel to frog march citizens of their own country to individual searches and interrogations without warrants or even allegations of wrongdoing, suffice to say these folks had done their homework and believed they were within their rights to do it. Something about that plane or the people in it gave them enough justification to point guns and detain the party without any rights being read or any notion of what they might be under suspicion of. And that's where the real concern lies.
Transparency is the only protection against abuses by government and the lack of information forthcoming from the CBP under the cover of security or privacy issues naturally raises the suspicion that abuses are taking place. That's a serious matter in a society that cherishes freedom but it's further amplified by the circumstances in this case.
Since the CBP won't tell us what, exactly, they were looking for on May 22 in Perry's Cessna 210, we'll have to make some educated guesses. And since they've admitted that their actions were unusual in this case, we'll have to assume that someone on that plane was suspected of being capable of responding in kind. Also, because the Perry party was free to go an hour later, it's safe to assume that there was no evidence to support any of those suspicions.
Now, imagine if the same scene played out in a commercial airport terminal, the lineup for the border at Tijuana or a crossing into Ontario. Certainly there are people who use those facilities every day who have criminal records, ties to organized crime, are suspected smugglers or whatever. Without arrest warrants and virtually 100 percent certainty that the objects of detainment and search were engaged in or plotting illegal activity, there is not a chance that law enforcement personnel or CBP agents would draw weapons and conduct on-the-spot interrogations and searches. The public wouldn't stand for it and the authorities know that.
So why would they believe that it's an appropriate response on an airport ramp in Long Beach, Calif.?
Perhaps it's just the fact that under the new regulations for cross-border flights, CBP has new tools to try and responses to exercise and maybe this and the other incidents we've heard about are just a manifestation of that. Law-abiding pilots and their passengers would therefore have nothing to fear from security rules that may be appropriate and well intentioned.
But it could also be that GA is a soft target for this kind of show of force. The new manifest requirements are bound to turn up pilots and passengers that trigger security responses and the ramp checks, with or without guns, are a convenient method for the security personnel to pad their statistics, regardless of whether they actually enhance national security.
The natural response from pilots would be to think twice about crossing the border in a private aircraft and that would be the wrong response. We should never forget that the overarching goal of post 9/11 security measures is to ensure safety, freedom and liberty for law abiding citizens so that we can go about our normal business. However, as David Perry can attest, that can be difficult to do with your fingers intertwined on your head while you're staring at the muzzle of a gun.