Border agents vs. musical instruments

by Walter Olson on January 3, 2014

What do our border control authorities have against musical instruments? First it was pianist Kristian Zimerman’s Steinway, destroyed by TSA agents because they thought the glue in it smelled suspicious. Then it was the prized cello bow that Alban Gerhardt says was snapped in two by TSA agents (bows are surprisingly costly things, and can run the price of a Mercedes). Now, according to a report in the Boston Globe, customs agents mistook a rare collection of handmade flutes for pieces of bamboo and destroyed them as illicit agricultural goods. I’ve got a discussion at Cato at Liberty.

Cato trade analyst Dan Ikenson draws my attention to this passage of Frederic Bastiat’s:

Between Paris and Brussels obstacles of many kinds exist. First of all, there is distance, which entails loss of time, and we must either submit to this ourselves, or pay another to submit to it. Then come rivers, marshes, accidents, bad roads, which are so many difficulties to be surmounted. We succeed in building bridges, in forming roads, and making them smoother by pavements, iron rails, etc. But all this is costly, and the commodity must be made to bear the cost. Then there are robbers who infest the roads, and a body of police must be kept up, etc.

Now, among these obstacles there is one which we have ourselves set up, and at no little cost, too, between Brussels and Paris. There are men who lie in ambuscade along the frontier, armed to the teeth, and whose business it is to throw difficulties in the way of transporting merchandise from the one country to the other. They are called Customhouse officers, and they act in precisely the same way as ruts and bad roads.

Further update from Foreign Policy (h/t reader JohnC): “In an e-mail exchange with NPR Music, a Customs official says no musical instruments were involved in the CPB’s actions — a claim not offered to FP. The story indicates that fresh bamboo was found in the luggage separate from Razgui’s 11 flutes. However, when American Airlines eventually delivered Razgui’s luggage, it did not contain the flutes. If both claims are true, it remains a mystery as to what actually happened to the flutes and why they didn’t show up in his luggage.” (& Greenfield, Above the Law) More: Zenon Evans, Reason.

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No Better Than The Most Ignorant Agent | Simple Justice
01.03.14 at 8:39 am

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1 Mike 01.03.14 at 10:52 am

Is there a reliable link that supports Zimerman’s version of that story re his piano? TSA agents, in my experience, use a wand and pad to check for traces of explosives, they do not destroy things because they “smell funny.”
Not that it couldn’t happen, but I am skeptical at this point..

2 Mark 01.03.14 at 11:11 pm

The government is smarter than you… they know what they are doing. This is why people voted to turn their healthcare over to government workers. Stop being disloyal and respect the government who is all knowing and smarter than anyone in the private sector.

3 JohnC 01.04.14 at 1:36 am

@ Mike

I agree. I work with assorted federal drones, and have no troubling imagining all sorts of nincompoopery; but, as you said, the details seem a bit off re the piano. I can’t find any thing to substantiate his story that “the TSA … destroyed the instrument,” other than an earlier (also unsubstantiated and well-after the fact) reference by him to a piano of his having been “confiscated for five days [at JFK] … and returned with some broken keys.” So….

The DHS family is target enough one needn’t so readily swallow “DURR glue smells funny DURR SMASH” hook, line, and sinker.

And, re the flutes, there’s an update at FP: “In an e-mail exchange with NPR Music, a Customs official says no musical instruments were involved in the CPB’s actions….The story indicates that fresh bamboo was found in the luggage separate from Razgui’s 11 flutes. However, when American Airlines eventually delivered Razgui’s luggage, it did not contain the flutes.”

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