Often — too often — government employees are unfairly criticized for simply doing their jobs.
But sometimes government employees deserve scorn for unreasonable and outrageous behavior. And when that happens, it unfortunately fuels stereotypes of incompetence and/or power-hungry zealotry.
One of those sad incidents occurred last week in New York when U.S. Customs and Border Protections agents unnecessarily turned a Canadian musician’s life upside down and inside out.
Customs officials at JFK International Airport destroyed 13 rare, handmade musical instruments used by flute virtuoso Boujemaa Razgui, who legally lives in the U.S., when he returned from Morocco. The 13 bamboo flutes — 11 neys and two kawalas — used for Middle Eastern music were classified as agricultural products by the agents.
The story apparently being spun by Customs officials is that the flutes were destroyed because they could introduce “exotic plant pathogens” into the United States. As a result, the agency refuses to concede an error or apologize.
Fresh bamboo is on the no-no list. But these instruments were made of dried bamboo, as are a lot if items that pass through U.S. Customs. And the list of permissible dried bamboo items includes musical instruments.
“I fly with them in and out all the time and this is the first time there has been a problem,” Razgui said. “This is my life ... This is horrible.”
Yes, U.S. Customs agents are busy and they must take their important jobs seriously, but destroying the instruments — destroying anything — before fully vetting the incident is an outrage.
Making mistakes is understandable, compounding them with arrogance is unacceptable.
Every government employee (and, frankly, every person with a job) should keep in mind that seemingly routine decisions and actions dramatically affect the lives of others. The flutes were just pieces of bamboo to the Customs agents, but they meant everything to Razgui.
Callous actions such as this serve only to undermine the good work and reputations of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.