Interrogating Swiss minors in the U.S.: Have you no sense of decency?


According to a headline story in the Tribune de Genève of August 6, American authorities questioned two Swiss adolescents upon their arrival in the United States to visit their grandparents. Held incommunicado from their families for six hours, they were asked about their father's activities as a banker following the April revelation by five Swiss banks of a list of 10,00 employees. The article went on to discuss the various dangers for those employees and the legality of the banks turning over the names.

I am a parent and grandparent. I can only imagine the panic of the parents and grandparents during the six hours that the children were held incommunicado. That cell phones are not allowed to function in the New York airport until you leave is understandable. That the minors were not allowed to communicate with their families for six hours is very difficult to understand and I can only sympathize with what must have been panic on the relatives' side.

Being a citizen of two countries is the best of worlds and the worst of worlds.  Positively, during the Olympics, one can patriotically root for Roger Federer and the American basketball team at the same time. Negatively, besides paying taxes in both countries, it is painful to witness when your two countries of citizenship are in disagreement, such as in banking or unclaimed money historically left in Swiss banks.

Several times I have been asked about what is considered heavy-handed tactics by American authorities in an obviously asymmetrical power relation. I have tried to be as objective as possible. In this situation, however, if the article is correct, and the newspaper has confirmed the story, it is most difficult to defend the activities of the authorities. The American Mission in Geneva and Embassy in Bern have been unable to give further details for the moment.

In one of the darkest episodes in American history, the McCarthy era, the questioning of a young officer on national television by Joseph McCarthy riveted the country. Millions of people watched to see if McCarthy had actually uncovered Communist spies in the United States government. One day his questioning went too far, he broke not only an agreement with the defense attorney, but he lost control of himself. In a moment of historical drama, the defense attorney, Joseph Welch, turned to McCarthy and asked: "Have you no sense of decency?" The question took the wind out of the bombastic Senator and effectively ended the witch-hunt of thirty-six days and 7,400 pages of testimony during which nothing was revealed.

While not defending the actions of certain banks and bankers, and while certainly not questioning the authority of the United States government to pursue criminal investigations, if the article is correct, I do question the decency of what happened at the airport.

August 14, 2012




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