Orson Welles' Sketchbook: Transcripts
Episode 3: May 7, 1955
I was, for many years, a radio commentator in America. And during that time, of course, I had occasion to speak on a great variety of subjects. And of all those subjects, one of the most interesting stories, one that sticks most vividly in my memory, had to do with a Negro soldier.
Here he is. The boy had seen service in the South Pacific, and he was on his way home. Home was in one of the southern states, and he was on a bus, on the way fell ill, and he asked the bus driver to let him off. The bus driver refused, abusively, there was an argument, at the end of which a policeman was called in, who dragged the boy out of the bus, took him behind a building and beat him viciously.
And when he was unconscious, poured gin over him, put him jail, charged him with drunkenness and assault. When the boy regained consciousness, he discovered he was blind. The policeman had literally beaten out his eyes. Now… of course that sort of policeman is the exception. That sort of a policeman is a criminal in uniform. I had the satisfaction of being instrumental in bringing that particular policeman to justice. The case was brought to my attention, and I brought it to the attention of the radio public and we did finally manage to locate this man and bring him into a court of law.
But there is another sort of police abuse. You know, I think we all suffer more or less. And we suffer at the hands of good policemen. Decent policemen. Policemen doing their duty. These are all the little petty annoyances; don't seem very important, but add up to an invasion of our privacy and an assault against our dignity as human beings.
I'm brought in mind of all this because just now I've had my passport renewed. That made me think of all the forms and police questionnaires we have to fill out. One of the unpleasant things about your passport, getting a new one of course, is that you have to have a new picture, in which you invariably look older, and sometimes a little worse than older. That's the idea (see image below).
I wonder why it is that so many of us look like criminals in a police lineup when we have our pictures taken for a passport. I suppose it's the unconscious foreknowledge of the scrutiny to which our likeness will be subjected that gives us that hangdog, guilty look. Really, theoretically, a passport is supposed to be issued for our protection. But on how many frontiers in how many countries I've handed over my passport with all the emotions of an apprentice forger trying to fob off a five pound note on the Bank of England. Guilty conscience, I suppose.
But, there's something about being ticketed… and numbered that gives the man the feeling of being a piece of baggage or a convict. One can't help thinking wistfully of our father's day, when the world hadn't grown so small. But one could move about in it without being watched so closely. Nowadays, we're treated like demented or delinquent children. And the eyes are always on us. In our father's day of course, there weren't any passports; the only countries that required an entry visa were Montenegro and Russia.
Here I am in the hands of the police; this is an illustration of a story. Happened to me in a country that I think had better be nameless. Enough trouble in the world as it is. First of all, I'd better explain that I carry, or at least carried, what Mr. Roosevelt once described, when I showed it to him, as the cheapest diplomatic passport in the world. In an American passport, I don't know whether it's true in an English one or not, but in an American one on the front page, there's a place that says "in case of death or accident, please notify…" and then you usually put the name of some near and dear one.
In my case, I put "in case of death or accident, please notify Franklin D. Roosevelt, Washington, D.C." But at the time of this story, when I was stopped by the police, Mr. Roosevelt had died, Mr. Truman was president, and an election was coming up in which Truman was running against Dewey. Now, I made the mistake that a great many of my fellow countrymen did, I imagined that Mr. Dewey was going to win. And because I wasn't very fond of Mr. Dewey, I had written in my passport, "in case of accident, please notify Thomas Dewey, White House, Washington, D.C." My thought being that the least I could do to devil Mr. Dewey would be to arrive in a coffin some morning. And it was therefore that passport that I handed to the police, at eleven o'clock, one wintry night in the mountains, when they jumped out in the road, in this country, which as I say, will be nameless, and with drawn guns, demanded what it was that I had in my baggage.
Now there wasn't any frontier, there couldn't be any question of customs, so I asked them, cheerfully, by way of conversation, whether this was a raid on dope-smugglers, or black marketeers, or whatever. They didn't feel like joking, they said "It is not for you to converse with the police. Open your bag." And I said, "Well, I'm afraid to, cause the bag will blow up." And they asked me what I meant by that and I explained that I had an atom bomb, a small one, in the bag…so wired to the catch that if you opened the bag, there'd be a dreadful explosion. Why? I said I was going to La Scala, and I didn't like the opera, and I was angry at the management and I was going to make an outrage, and that was what I had in my bag. And they said you mustn't joke with the police, argument went on some time, very unpleasant, go to be about two in the morning, one of those long, drawn-out practical jokes that you regret, and finally, they got around to looking at my passport.
And I was of course, grateful, most grateful, that they did, because when they saw the name, Thomas Dewey, they said, "Oh, excuse us, Mr. Dewey, please continue." And I don't know quite what that story illustrates, except that it shows that a passport does have its purpose. I don't want to think from that story that I am an anarchist. I'm against the police on principle, or that I believe in fighting them by practical jokes. Much less by lawlessness, just the contrary.
Now, I know I was wrong to make all that trouble for those police, in the mountains of that nameless country, but you see, I do a lot of traveling. I've been traveling all my life, as a matter of fact. I was born in America, but raised partly in China, and sent about the world, a good bit before the war, and a great deal during it, and even more afterwards. I have an office in one country, and a studio in another, the last film for example, was made in four countries. So I have a good deal of experience in crossing borders, and coping with the coppers all over the world. And it is true you know, that we're invited in the travel posters, to be tourists, and once we attempt it, we do discover, I'm afraid, that we 're guilty until proven innocent.
That being so, I think a word or two about red tapism and bureaucracy, particularly as it applies to freedom of movement, might be in order. I'm sure that true of all of us. Think of all of those forms we have to fill out, for example, you know what I mean, by police forms, we get them in hotels, on frontiers, in every country all over the world we're asked, state your sex, male or female, for example. Well obviously, I'm a male, I'm a man, why should I have to answer that? State your race and religion in block letters; well, now why should I have to confide my religion to the police? Frankly, I don't think anybody's race is anybody's business. I'm willing to admit that the policeman has a difficult job, a very hard job, but it's the essence of our society that the policeman's job should be hard. He's there to protect, protect the free citizen, not to chase criminals, that's an incidental part of his job. The free citizen is always more of a nuisance to the policeman that the criminal. He knows what to do about the criminal.
I know it's very nice to look out of the window in our comfortable home and see the policeman there protecting our home, we should be grateful for the policeman, but I think we should be grateful too, for the laws which protect us against the policeman. And there are those laws, you know, and they're quite different from the police regulations. But the regulations do pile up. Forms keep coming in. We keep being asked to state our grandmother's father's name, in block letters, and to say whether we propose to overthrow the government, in triplicate, why, and all that sort of thing. But you see, the bureaucrat, and I'm including the bureaucrat with the police, as part of one great big monstrous thing, the bureaucrat is really like a blackmailer. You can never pay him off, the more you give him, the more he'll demand. If you fill in one form, he'll give you ten.
Now what are we going to do about it? Obviously, if we go on giving into this thing, well, you say, just a minute, you say for example, why shouldn't we give in to it, why should we make trouble for the policeman? Well, the truth is, why should the policeman make trouble for us, why should he ask these things that are stated quite clearly in our passport? Our passport does tell everything the policeman needs to know. Why should we make trouble, well, we don't, because we don't want to get into trouble with the police. We're told that we should cooperate with the authorities. I'm not an anarchist, I don't want to overthrow the rule of law, on the contrary, I want to bring the policeman to law.
Obviously, individual effort won't do any good. There's nothing an individual can do about the protecting the individual in society. I'd like it very much if somebody would make a great big international organization for the protection of the individual. That way, there could be offices at every frontier. And whenever we're presented with something unpleasant, that we don't want to fill one of these idiotic questionnaires, we could say "Oh no, I'm sorry, it's against the rules of our organization to fill out that questionnaire." And they'd say "Ah, but it's the regulations," and we'd say, "Very well, see our lawyer," because if there were enough of us, our dues would pay for the best lawyers in all the countries of the world. And we could bring to court these invasions of our privacy, and test them under law. It would nice to have that sort of organization, be nice to have that sort of card. I see the card as fitting into the passport, a little larger than the passport, with a border around it, in bright colors, so that it would catch the eye of the police. And they'd know who they were dealing with. Something like this (see image). The card itself should look rather like a union card, I should think, a card of an automobile club. And since its purpose is to impress and control officialdom, well, obviously, it should be as official looking as possible. With a lot of seals and things like that on it. And it might read something as follows:
This is to certify that the bearer is a member of the human race. All relevant information is to be found in his passport. And except when there is good reason for suspecting him of some crime, he will refuse to submit to police interrogation, on the grounds that any such interrogation is an intolerable nuisance. And life being as short as it is, a waste of time. Any infringement on his privacy, or interference with his liberty, any assault, however petty, against his dignity as a human being, will be rigorously prosecuted by the undersigned, I.S.[sic].P.I.A.O. That would be the International Association for the Protection of the Individual Against Officialdom. If any such outfit is ever organized, you can put me down as a charter member…