A few days before Valentine's, I went to the downtown post office in San Antonio to mail my love packages - to people who could care less, but that's another story. Anyway, as I went through the gauntlet of security apparatus post 9-11, a puffy-taco kind of security guard asked me for my driver's license.

Searching high and low for it, I asked him, porqúe? Puffy answered that he had to confirm that I was who I said I was.

"So how do you know that this is me?" He is holding up my license to the hazy light in this historically-designated post office situated across from the Alamo.

Maybe that's why everything happened. When I drew my line on the sand. The following is my general recollection of what happened next:

"This is ridiculous!" Blurt this as other people are in line to cross the security whizzie. I should mention here that there were about three security types milling around. Use words like frustrated, indignant, I can't believe.

Puffy is puffed-up with patriotism. "This is the best country in the world."

God bless America!

"Excuse me? This is NOT the best country in the world right now."

"If you don't like it, go back to Russia!" He won't let me finish.

"What? There are other democracies, Norway, Sweden, France."

Then Puffy orders me to leave.

"You must be kidding."

Puff starts puffing and huffing at me as I turn to the small crowd in front of the conveyer belt, appealing to them for mercy and free speech. The captive audience says nothing. Nada. Quickly, a gringo security guard, 20s maybe, shiny black hair, military-lean, with the smell of badges and starch on him, approaches me.

"You're going to have to leave."

"Why? I haven't done anything." Start giving him a lesson on the Bill of Rights too.

Argue. A leaner, older - and this time blond - security guard approaches me, and he's calm, not like the others. Smart. Scary. Pulls me away. Sense that the crowd is not on my side.

"Ma'am. You're disturbing the peace. We're at Orange Alert."

Argue some more.

Then Blondie takes out a pad, asks for my name.

"Are you kidding? So that you can check my e-mail and arrest me and throw away the keys because you think I'm a terrorist?"

Blondie smiles a CIA kind-of smile. Assures me this is not the case. "Just procedure."

"I'm not giving you my name. I've done nothing wrong. Except argue with a very insecure security guard over there (don't say insecure, but I'm thinking, 'stupid') who thinks he's the only one who can talk."

Mr. Blond, very cool and collected, explains that this is a federal building and, sensing that I'm going to fight all the way, promises to talk to Puffy. Apologizes for him. But not for asking me to leave.

"Do you realize that these measures are no different that what I've seen in Guatemala?"

Blondie says he knows, he's been there. And to other countries. Says we have to defend ourselves.

"Do you really think we can," I press him. "If someone wants to harm us, they will."

He looks at me suspiciously. "We're at Orange Alert."

I'm trying to explain that something is very wrong here, as third-grade, high-school, and federal court cases are spilling into me. But the bare-bones truth is so easily lost amidst the pitch and fevers of fear. Breathe.

"We're a democracy," I start. Think that's all I keep saying, over and over. The only thing they can't destroy is our belief in freedom. Our right to be whoever we are, remember? And they've taken that, don't you see? They've already won. My heart says this, but it's not going to my mouth. Because, I'm afraid of him. A little bit. And it makes me too angry to speak. More likely I'm saying something garbled and high-falutin with fancy words that mean nothing. One thing for sure. The fear has disabled both of us. He's afraid of me and I'm afraid of him because he's afraid of me - so that all our lessons seem to have failed us at this crucial moment.

Shuts his pad as we argue about losing our rights in order to keep them. Knows that I've figured out he's CIA-related, and tells me I can send my packages, but I will have to be very quiet.

I finally get to ship my books 30 minutes after the driver's license question. The valentines get sent. Choose the love and antique car stamps. Puff-man glares at me from the shadows. I write this column on the terror of freedom. •


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