A Polish friend of mine in Vegas, Paul P., was hosting his sister-in-law from back home. Mariola is quite cultured, beautiful, speaks nearly perfect English, and is very politically savvy – – – she was the protoge’ of economics professor Leszek Balcerowicz who became Poland’s first post-communist finance minister.
On the way back from Los Angeles, they passed a highwayman, ah, that is, a Highway Patrol officer, along the side of the road rummaging through a motorist’s open trunk.
Since I was regarded as the resident expert on American ethnology at the time — at least among my Polish friends — Mariola later asked me what had been going on. I explained that despite previous challenges, according to an at-that-time-recent Supreme Court ruling, American cops had the de-facto right to search in the trunk of your vehicle, and that if you didn’t open up “voluntarily,” they could and would force it open. It’s true. She didn’t believe me at first. “Surely you are joking,” she said. “This is America. They cannot do that – – – even in Poland!” This was before the 1989 Revolution — before the Berlin Wall came down. At the time, Poland was still “communist.”
I in turn didn’t quite believe her. “That’s completely at odds with what we were taught about communist countries. Polish cops can’t even make you open the trunk to your car?” I asked.
“Not without special paper,” she stated. “Not even secret police.”
Mariola was clearly incensed that American cops could do what Polish cops couldn’t, not even during communism.
Chrissy and I were visiting Poland shortly after the wall came down, and got a little first hand experience. Our rented car was parked at an open-air market, when an officer approached us.
After cracking the language barrier, we discovered he wanted to look in the trunk. We asked why. He told us that he thought the car might be stolen and he’d be able to tell by checking the spare tire – – – or something. (We’d only cracked the language barrier apparently, not broken it entirely.)
At the time, because of certain legal anomalies, Poland was a hotbed of cars stolen elsewhere in Europe, so the request wasn’t really out of line. We were reasonably sure our rented car wasn’t stolen — it was a Polish Lada (Fiat) — so we decided to see what would happen if we told the guy “No.”
When we did, he thanked us politely and went on his way. Now there’s a polite policeman! We asked our hosts how they ever caught any crooks. They told us that if he’d had anything much to go on, he’d have been more persistent, but he still wouldn’t be able to check the trunk without permission — or that special paper.
Mariola spent quite a bit of time in the U.S. and even got a Nevada driver’s license. Just before she left America for the last time, she told me why she would never come back.
“They can even search the trunk of my car in America. You have been brain-washed by your stupid drug-war propaganda to think all this doesn’t matter. But it does. Already your country has far more people in jails and prisons per capita than any other country in the world — even your schools resemble prisons. Is this the sign of a free country?
“You have to worry about how much money you bring into the country, how much you take out. You have to keep financial records, not for yourself, but for your IRS. Is this the sign of a free country? You have more police and more laws making more things illegal than any other country in the world. Is this the sign of a free country?
“They told us we lived in free country too.
“I never believed all those propaganda stories they told us about America when I was a child, but I do now.”
“America isn’t free,” she said. “It starts with your driver’s license. When the police stop me in Poland, the only thing they know about me is my name and where I live. Here they go to those computers they have in their cars. They know if I’m married or single, who my husband is, how many children I have. They can find out if I have had any other contact with the police, what my income is or if I’m unemployed. If I were an American, they would know my national identification number — you call it ‘Social Security.’ With that, they could even look at my credit card and spending habits, military record, school grades and even find out my blood type.”
“Yes, but they’re not supposed to – – –
“Yes, but they do. Police are the same everywhere. We Polish know. You Americans will find out.”
Was she right? Are things better or worse now? What are you going to do about it?