Traveling to and from Columbia, SC by air often requires two planes. So I’ve spent a lot of “layover” time in airports. Because Fort Jackson, “the largest and most active Initial Entry Training Center in the United States” is located in Columbia, and because the Army flies new recruits in via commercial airlines, I’m used to having nervous young people waiting with me in airline terminals ask me if I live in Columbia, and when I answer affirmatively, ask me about the city and about Fort Jackson. Yesterday I got the same questions from an older man who was flying to Columbia from Wyoming, where he worked on rigs as an oil driller, to Columbia to attend his daughter’s graduation from Basic Training at Fort Jackson. He interrupted this chat to meet his sister’s plane, as she was flying in from Arkansas to attend the graduation as well. He returned with her, and the three of us had a really pleasant conversation about many things. Neither of them had a computer or knew how to use one, so I pulled out my laptop and helped them research hotel reservations and car rental information. They were extremely nice people. They offered to buy me coffee, but I declined and they went off in search of it, and I began checking my e-mail. One of my messages contained a link to the webcast of a law conference I had recently attended. I began listening to it. I didn’t have any headphones with me, so I tried to keep the volume low. But I have been suffering from a head cold that has been making my ears stuffy, so maybe it was louder than I think it was. I don’t know.
After a couple of minutes I asked the people sitting in my row of chairs if the webcast was disturbing them. They said no. Maybe they were just being polite. It didn’t occur to me to ask the people sitting behind me if the webcast was disturbing them. I wish it had. My friends from Wyoming and Arkansas returned with their coffee and sat next to me. We started chatting again and I left the webcast droning on in the background, unthinkingly. Suddenly a woman sitting behind me stood up and thumped me on the shoulder, hard. “EXCUSE ME!” she shouted, “ARE YOU GOING TO THE NAC?” The NAC (pronounced “knack”) is the National Advocacy Center, located in Columbia. A lot of government lawyers travel to Columbia to attend training sessions at the NAC.
“No,” I said. “WELL I AM THE U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE ____ DISTRICT OF ______ AND THE LAW TAPES YOU ARE LISTENING TO ARE DISTURBING PEOPLE!” She did not leave blanks. She specified the district and the state. Loudly. Clearly I was supposed to be impressed and intimidated. I immediately shut off the webcast and apologized. This was not good enough.
“I WOULD NEVER ALLOW AN ATTORNEY WHO WORKED FOR ME TO LISTEN TO LAW TAPES IN A PUBLIC PLACE. I AM THE U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE ____ DISTRICT OF ______ AND I THINK YOUR BEHAVIOR IS HIGHLY INAPPROPRIATE,” she continued. It dawned on me that she thought I had been listening to a deposition or some other confidential or at least quasi confidential legal proceeding. “The webcast was of a public lecture,” I explained, “given at a law school, to an audience of mostly academics and law students, but also open to the public. It didn’t contain anything confidential,” I said. I tried hard to sound polite, I really did.
“WELL IT WAS DISTURBING PEOPLE. TWO PEOPLE MOVED THEIR SEATS BECAUSE OF YOU, AND BECAUSE I AM THE U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE ____ DISTRICT OF ______, I THOUGHT I OUGHT TO INTERVENE,” she boomed.
I apologized again, and my friends from Wyoming and Arkansas rather effusively thanked me for all the kindness I had shown them, I think to get the U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE ____ DISTRICT OF ______ to back off, and it worked. Did I mention how nice those folks were? I couldn’t resist googling “U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE ____ DISTRICT OF ______” and there she was. The hairstyle had changed somewhat but the face was the same. And I had to wonder: What kind of person decides she has to announce her job title, loudly and repeatedly, before asking a complete stranger to turn down the sound on her computer? Answer: A person who abuses her power. And guess what? A little more googling revealed that the U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE ____ DISTRICT OF ______, a Bush appointee, has been accused of doing just that, in a political situation I was already aware of, and now will be following with even more interest.