We have all been harassed by petty government officials in daily life – the taxi driver who is harassed by a policeman, the small trader who is harassed by a tax inspector, the small town baker who is harassed by the environmental officer – these are often small issues which take place in ordinary small Polish cities. We learn to tolerate them and find a way to live with them. But situations arise when you have to decide – and state categorically, ‘enough is enough!’ At that time we take a stand, and it needs courage and conviction.
My time to stand up to harassment came in Sept 2010 at Okęcie airport when I was confronted by the officers of the Border Guard. For nearly 40 years, passing through Okęcie was without an incident worth mentioning, but from Sept 2010 it has become a nightmare. The reason? I dared to stand up to the excesses of the officers on duty.
Who has not experienced that odd feeling of dread when going through airport security check? In Poland until May 2013, the armed officers of the Border Guard ruled the civilian airport like their domain. “Pass through this check; Do as I say, as I am the master here” – the sentiments that can be seen on the official e-forum of the Border Guard.
A new EU rule was issued in mid 2009 under which passengers passing through airport security were to be scrutinised better – this is fair and reasonable. All head gear was to be removed – also fair, except in some cases, e.g. Christian nuns, priests of the Orthodox Church and Sikhs.
In other EU security checks that I went through, I was indeed asked to remove my turban – but I always asked them to conduct the preliminary check with the available equipment and always passed through without incident. But not in Okęcie! Speaking fluent Polish, I made the same suggestion as to all other security check agencies in Europe. At first this suggestion was taken a little uncertainly – but thinking that by approaching the hierarchy of the Border Guard in a constructive manner would help to ensure that security checks might become uneventful. But no!
Contrary to what you might expect from a governmental agency, the armed force of Border Guard – part of the military service – took offence at the arrogance of a mere passenger to question them! Rather than looking again at the application and interpretation of the new regulations, the Border Guard in its myopia went as far as they possibly could to use powers they had and arguably to misuse them. The guise was not surprisingly the idea that they might achieve absolute security – something that has proved to be elusive, even in the most oppressive regimes.
So what was my motivation?
Experience from everywhere else in the world showed me that security was indeed achieved at every other security check without resorting to the ultimate personal intrusion. It became clear that the Border Guards were not intent on security, rather on punishing an upstart, who dared to stand up to them – it needs courage, conviction and luck to stand up to such petty officials. The Court Cases in Warsaw’s lower court and appeal court have not been successful and so we have to resort to the Supreme Court. The issue now is the application of the law. The legal arguments are being drafted and will be submitted shortly.
A precedent is to be set here. The law seems to give unreasonable power to government officials who cannot differentiate between the letter of the law and the application of the spirit of the law. In a civic society developing in the right way, the rule of law is respected by those exercising it and those submitting to it.
Talk to any taxi driver, small business owner, the local baker and you will find time and again that those who wield the authority lack the education, experience and the willingness to apply the law so that its intended impact is achieved – rather the narrow myopic application of the letter of the law is used, and thus the responsible citizen is oppressed, humiliated and at times frustrated beyond reason. And the outcome? Abuse of the Rule of Law!
Let us wait and see how the Polish Supreme Court will address this case – in which it has to balance on the one hand the unachievable absolute security promised by these government officials and on the other, the relative human right and dignity, which is the rightful prerogative of all citizens – something that the lower courts have not been able to address.