Vermont’s Secret Police

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(Host) Several times in recent months Commentator Philip Baruth has had to pass through the traffic checkpoint on Route 91 South to Chester. And each time it’s given him a genuine, first-class case of the creeps.

(Baruth) A few years ago, I wrote a little spoof about the political differences between New Hampshire and Vermont. In this spoof, New Hampshire had erected a border between the states, just outside of Hanover, and this barrier was patrolled by lean, tough-talking New Hampshire troopers.

Their purpose? To screen out Vermonters who might want to move into the Granite State and hike taxes.

Whatever humor the piece generated came from the absurdity of the concept itself: a federal-style border controlling movement not between countries, but between states.

So imagine my surprise a few months back when I got onto Highway 91 South, headed to Chester for a reading. I was running a little bit behind, but 91 is forgiving in that way – it’s a lovely and lonely highway, the south end of it in particular, with a long ten miles and a hundred thousand trees between every exit. But before I could get up to speed, I saw a scattering of fluorescent traffic cones, and signs that told me to prepare to stop. I got into a long line of cars, and we crept forward.

As I got closer to the hold-up, I saw that four tall men in green uniforms – I had to assume they were federal agents – were quizzing drivers and then waving them slowly ahead. I thought, okay, so there’s a manhunt on for an escaped prisoner. But when I pulled to the head of the line, the agent leaned down to my window and asked the $64,000 question: “In what country were you born?”

Now, when guys wearing pointed hats and carrying guns ask me questions, my normal impulse is to answer first, and get indignant later. So that’s what I did. I answered, “The United States of America,” and the agent immediately straightened and waved me on.

It was only after I’d gone around the bend and lost sight of the check-point that I really started to feel creepy about the experience. First of all, I don’t like routine stops by guys in uniform, and I mean for any reason. I don’t even like it when small towns put smiling policemen out at red lights with donation cans.

And what kind of a question is “In what country were you born?” Granted, I’m a layman but isn’t the real question citizenship, not country of birth? Since when do we separate out life-long Americans and naturalized citizens?

All of this came to mind again a few days ago, when I drove down south and hit the same checkpoint. This time the agents didn’t even bother to ask me anything; they were joking to another, just flicking a glance or two into each car before waving it on. It couldn’t have been any clearer that by now the checkpoint was simply to check license plates, faces, skin colors, profiles.

Clearly someone at the Federal Level wants to sample the flow of traffic moving south from our state into the rest of the country. Maybe they’re thinking arms smugglers, terrorists, drugs, whatever the palette of current threats happens to be. But understanding the purpose isn’t the same as supporting the strategy. It still seems to me an overly casual assertion of federal power.

And just speaking for myself, I don’t like it, not one little bit.

Philip Baruth is a novelist who lives in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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