Government Extortion, Egyptian-Style
On my return voyage from Egypt last week, I was treated to a good, old-fashioned police shakedown at Cairo International Airport. I was in transit from Amman, Jordan at the time, and I was trying to make my way to a different terminal in order to catch my connecting flight stateside. Unfortunately for me, the administrators of Cairo International Airport have not deemed it necessary to set up a transportation system between the terminals of the airport for transit passengers, so travelers wishing to change terminals need to miraculously find out which of the four terminals they are flying out of, and find someone who can "arrange" transportation for them.
After miraculously discovering that my flight was departing out of terminal 1, I scrounged around until I finally found a member of the airport staff willing to arrange transportation for me. He informed me, however, that I would have to wait in the passport control annex for eight hours (just before my departure time) before anyone would be willing to take me to the other terminal. After I told him I would need to eat at some point during the eight hour wait, he finally consented to allow me to go up to the food court of the terminal I was currently in, if I would promise to return in six hours’ time. My word was promptly given, and I was allowed to enter a remote security screening area.
As soon as I entered the screening area I knew that I was in a vulnerable position. The metal detector operator and the x-ray operator were conversing loudly when I entered into the room, alone, but they stopped talking entirely when they caught sight of me. I placed my backpack on the conveyor and walked through the metal detector acutely aware of their stares, how American I looked at the time, and how isolated the three of us were in that remote part of the airport.
I did not set off the metal detector as I passed through, but I was nevertheless directed to raise my arms for a pat-down. My tin of smokeless tobacco piqued the screener’s interest, as did the lump in my front pocket, and he motioned for me to remove them for inspection. The contents of the tobacco tin fascinated both of them. They passed it back and forth, sniffing it while laughing and wincing at the spicy odor. One motioned to me questioningly whether the tobacco was meant for chewing, making a chomping movement with his jaws. In reply, I motioned to him that the tobacco was meant to be placed inside the lower lip, and I made the motion of spitting like an old western cowboy. Both of them laughed, and the tobacco was returned to me.
The contents of my front pocket were of even more interest to them. I had stupidly placed a large folded wad of American 20’s in my pocket, along with my wallet, which was overflowing with Egyptian pounds (a lot of paper, to be sure, but really only worth about $20 US). The metal detector operator sighed when he saw the wad of foreign green paper, and couldn’t help releasing the word "moneeey" softly in my native tongue. The x-ray operator responded to the sight of the green paper by calling me over for a bag inspection.
He wasn’t concerned in the slightest about the metal objects I had in my bag. He was only concerned with the tins of tobacco he had seen on the screen. He pulled them out and looked at them intently once again with a childlike grin on his face. I kept repeating the word tobacco to reassure him that it was not some sort of crazy American intoxicant, to which he nodded understandingly and started speaking to the metal detector operator in Arabic interspersed with the word "tobacco."
The tins were returned to me, to the great exasperation of the metal detector operator. He shouted playfully at the x-ray operator with a broad smile on his face, making motions to me that he wanted to confiscate the tobacco. The x-ray operator nevertheless allowed me to pack everything up, and I assumed they were done having their fun with the dumb American. As I prepared to leave, however, the x-ray operator said to me very quietly "Meester." I looked up at him as I shouldered my backpack and he leaned forward with his right hand outstretched, his thumb rubbing the tips of his index and middle fingers.
As an American, I am not particularly well practiced in the art of furtive bribery. To be sure, I recognize that international sign for bribery when I see it, but, since I am never forced to pay that type of bribe in my native country, I am not exactly clear about how to do it in practice. Do you negotiate the price? Should bribes be paid in the extortionist’s own currency, or does etiquette allow for the use of other currencies? Do you need to cleverly conceal the money in the palm of your hand before handing over?
Given my lack of experience in the art of bribery, I can perhaps be forgiven for handling the robbery rather ungracefully. At first, I simply blurted out "I don’t have any money on me right now," a response I’d been unthinkingly repeating in Egypt to the flocks of trinket dealers and con men who try to take advantage of foreign tourists. Fortunately, neither of the men spoke English and my faux pas went unnoticed, but they were still standing there waiting for me to hand over some cash. I didn’t have any choice about paying them something. After all, they were in a position where they could have taken as much money out of my pocket as they wanted, or taken anything else if they so wished, and I would have been completely powerless to stop them. We were completely alone and no one would have known they were robbing me, and I doubt that any officials would have even cared had they known. So, I reached in my pocket, pulled out some Jordanian Dinars, clumsily put a wad of them into the man’s hand, and thus paid a ransom in order to keep my own property.
Government Extortion, American-Style
The idea of bribing government officials and police officers seems incredibly foreign and ridiculous to ordinary Americans. Indeed, to be extorted into paying money to a person who is supposedly employed to protect you in order to keep him from harming you, seems like the height of outrageous corruption. And so it is, but Americans are hopelessly naïve if they think that their government does not engage in extortion on a regular basis as well. To be sure, the American brand of government extortion does not occur in dimly-lit back rooms or on the shoulder of the highway, with government officials secretly demanding cash from their prey, as is the case in Egypt, Mexico, and countless other countries in the so-called "developing" world. On the contrary, American-style government extortion usually occurs above the board, for everyone to see. It just goes by more polite labels, such as "permit fees," "licensing fees," or "registration fees."
In order to see why these hallowed American "institutions" are extortionary in exactly the same manner as the actions of my friends at Cairo International Airport, let’s have a closer look at what the classic case of extortion entails. As in my experience in Egypt, extortion occurs when a person uses the power of his position in order to extract money (or tobacco, favors, et cetera) from a hapless person who is subject to his power. Extortion thus always entails the threat of force, because the victim is acutely aware that the extortionist can and almost certainly will use the power of his position to harm him if he does not hand over whatever is demanded. This is clearly what occurred to me at Cairo International Airport, because I was intensely aware that if I did not hand over some cash I would have been subject to some harsher treatment at the hands of my extortionists — like the confiscation of even more of my property, or a stint in jail if I fought off their attempts to seize my property and was consequently charged with assault.
As was previously noted, there exists relatively little extortion in the United States in the form of government employees individually seeking bribes from individual victims. Instead, government extortion in the United States is usually a group action, parading as an act for the benefit of the victims themselves. Consider, for example, the case of landowners in the United States who wish to build on or otherwise alter their own property. They are the owners of the property, and as such, ought to have the right to alter or improve their property in any manner they wish — indeed, if they do not possess this right, they are not in actuality the owners of the property. In the U.S. (and many other so-called "developed" nations), however, property owners are required to get permission from various government agencies in order to build on their own properties. Obtaining permission means buying a permit from whatever government agency demands payment. If the property owner should choose not to pay the "fee," and thereby obtain permission to build on or alter his own land, he faces the possibility of having the property seized (or more of his money in the form of fines) — all for building on or altering his own property. This is true of virtually any alteration a man might wish to make to his property — from building a cabin on his mountain ranch, building a sunroom off his kitchen, remodeling his bathroom, or even replacing his roof. This is extortion, pure and simple, because the landowner only pays the money in order to bribe the government agency to not harm him even more severely.
The same is of course true with regard to vehicle, gun or bicycle "registration" laws. Registering one’s gun, bike or car with whichever government agency demands payment means buying a "registration certificate" of some form or another from the government agency. This, too, is a case of extortion pure and simple, because the car, gun or bike owner only pays the "fee" in order to keep the government agency from inflicting even more harm on him — like seizing his gun or car, fining him even larger sums of money, or putting him in prison for not paying the bribe, I mean "registration fee," beforehand. Like my friends in Cairo, the government agencies essentially tell their victims to pony up a relatively small amount of cash now, or face having worse things happen to them in the future at the hand of the government itself.
The same is even more obviously true with regard to trade-licensing requirements enforced by government agencies. Under these laws, workers in a given trade are required to obtain "licenses" from whatever government agency demands payment in order to work in the trade. Obtaining a license means buying a fancy "certificate" of some sort from whichever government agency or agencies purport to know whether he knows the trade. The worker does not buy the license in order to make himself any better off; on the contrary, he simply buys the license in order to avoid having the government agency seize all of his hard-earned income, fine him into bankruptcy, or lock him up in jail for having worked "illegally." In some circumstances, the worker does buy the license in an attempt to make himself better off, but he does so in the devious hope that the government agency will persecute his competitors for not having bought the fancy certificate. In that case, the "licensed" workers collude with the government in the extortion of "unlicensed" workers, but the overall situation is no less extortionary on that account. As in the previous examples, trade-licensing laws are a form of extortion pure and simple.
For Americans who are completely unaccustomed to being coerced into paying bribes to police officers or bureaucrats, it can be jarring and angering to encounter the practice in foreign countries. Upon reflection, however, it should be viewed as just another example of government extortion — an activity the various governments here in the United States excel at and practice on a daily — nay, hourly — basis. It does not make the extortion any less sickening or wrong simply because the perpetrators in this country are an army of indifferent, glassy-eyed bureaucrats rather than the individual smirking border guards or Federales of other countries. Extortion is extortion, and it should not make us feel any better about the practice or superior to other countries, just because virtually everyone gets extorted equally in this country, whereas the extortion in other countries is often sporadic and unevenly distributed. If anything, other countries’ form of extortion is superior to our own institutionalized form, because at least some lucky people are able to evade this form of robbery abroad.
All this should not be taken as an endorsement of government extortion in other countries and a condemnation of our own forms of government extortion here in the United States. Quite the reverse, this should be taken as a warning that extortion and robbery are often all around us in this world, even in places most Americans have never thought of looking. The greatest perpetrators of this crime are undeniably the sundry governments that infest every nook and cranny of the world — and this is overlooking the most widespread and invidious form of extortion that each and every government that has ever existed thrives on: taxation.
So, the next time you get hustled or shaken down as a tourist abroad, calm yourself and remember that their crime is no worse than those perpetrated on you at your local DMV, City Hall, or IRS office.
Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.