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A forgotten picnic knife had me staring down the barrels of five guns

JORI BOLTON/The Globe and Mail

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I admire Americans. During the 10 years I worked as a Canadian diplomat in Dallas, Minneapolis and Atlanta, I came to respect and embrace their unbridled enthusiasm, unshakeable optimism and "can-do" confidence.

But I don't admire them unreservedly. This fall's tragic incident in which a young mother was shot dead by police after a wild car chase through Washington underscores how fragile the balance between calm and carnage has become. Questions arose over whether authorities reacted with a reasonable level of response. Did they really need to pursue her the way they did – especially with her infant so vulnerable in her car? Did they really need to fire as many bullets as wildly as they did?

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Yet, sadly, these actions seem to be accepted practice in a post-9/11 society where the phrase "homeland security" can often take on an ironic twist.

During a holiday visit to D.C. a couple of years ago, my own warm and fuzzy feelings for Americans were sharply confronted at the security entrance to the Holocaust Museum, one of the highest priorities on our "must see" list.

I deposited my shoulder bag on the screening conveyor belt. It's ideal for carrying a compact digital camera, city guide book, passport, wallet and – tucked away forgotten in a separate compartment – my trusty travelling companion of 15 years, a Laguiole pocket knife.

You have to know that a Laguiole is much more than just a pocket knife. It's a functional piece of art, lovingly handcrafted by French artisans with graceful curved lines, fruitwood handle and distinctive bumblebee trademark.

It has been a friend and a comfort on many trips, coming in handiest when you've returned to your hotel room, soaked to the skin after tramping around one or another of the world's great cities in the rain, and all you want to do is curl up with a loaf of crusty bread, some fine local cheese and that amusing chardonnay you've picked up while you dry out and rest up for the next day's adventure.

A Laguiole helps you enjoy a spontaneous nosh like that with elegance and grace. Also it cost a ridiculous amount of money.

As my man-bag trundled its way through the scanner, one of the security guards called out: "Hold it! I'm seeing a blade here!" and another of his colleagues – a diminutive female – stepped in quickly and snatched it off the belt.

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"Please open up your bag, sir," ordered the wiry young woman.

I knew immediately what had caused the alarm and I carefully pulled out the Laguiole, still housed in its leather carrying case, apologizing for having brought it along.

"Is there somewhere I can leave this until after we've been through the museum so I can pick it up on my way out?" I asked

"No, sir," she snapped. "You can either drop it in that box over there, or you can leave the building immediately."

"But if I drop it in that box will I be able to retrieve it?" I asked her.

"No," she said, her voice inching up an octave or two. "We dispose of all weapons that are collected in that box twice a week."

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"But it's not a weapon," I protested, "It's a functional piece of art lovingly handcrafted by …"

"SIR, you need to dispose of it or leave the building immediately," she barked, her voice now at full command pitch.

I glanced over at Edina – the woman who makes my life worth living (and a nifty travelling companion too), who was shooting me a scathing look that spoke volumes. Volumes 1 and 2 seemed to be saying: "You idiot! I really wanted to see this place and I told you to leave that damned thing behind. As handsome as you are, and as much as you fascinate me, the minute I get you alone I'm going to smack you around the ears for this."

I may have read more into her look than she intended, but the meaning was clear: I had made a mistake and she was going to have to pay for part of it by not getting to see the Holocaust Museum.

As I turned back to the wiry security guard, however, there was an abrupt new development.

In the minute or so that I'd been speaking with her and exchanging glances with Edina, we had been quietly surrounded by five – count'em, five security guards, all with the clip of their holsters undone and their hands poised over the grip of their guns.

The encounter had escalated without my even being aware of it. The tension was palpable and I knew my next reaction would have to be carefully measured.

"Okay," I said as calmly as I could, cautiously dropping the leather case with the Laguiole back into my bag. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience. We'll be on our way."

And as the five guards escorted us out the front door and we shuffled down the street under their glowering gaze, neither of us wanted to speculate on what had just happened.

We didn't want to know what could have happened, but we did know with uncomfortable certainty that things were profoundly, and dangerously, different.

Michael Alexander lives in Belleville, Ont.

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