When it comes to mindless FBI interrogations, Marc Schultz is not alone

It was a sleepy afternoon in June, and in the Atlanta office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, agents were amusing themselves the best they could — shredding obsolete field reports about strange Arabs in Florida flight schools who didn't want to learn how to land, or reframing pictures of J. Edgar Hoover in his prom dress. Maybe playing cassettes of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. outwitting communists on the bureau's old TV show, or screening highlight tapes of Waco, Ruby Ridge or the non-capture of Eric Rudolph.

No, seriously, I hate to come down too hard on the FBI. The Atlanta office may be the pride of the bureau, for all I know. But on this particular sleepy afternoon, near the end of Year Two of the Constitution-strangling USA Patriot Act, the phone rang at last and lured a pair of underworked agents to an assignment that was not their finest moment.

The story belongs to Marc Schultz, a 25-year-old bookstore employee, a freelance writer who studied with Tony Earley in the creative writing program at Vanderbilt. Carrying a clear conscience, Schultz wasn't even anxious when his mother called him at work to say the FBI was looking for him. More than anything else, Schultz felt curiosity. Like most of us, he was burdened with a stereotype of G-men on the job — "Matrix-like figures in black suits and opaque sunglasses" standing in his mother's doorway.

When the agents showed up at the bookstore, one was dressed in a sports jacket and T-shirt — "like an Atlanta version of Miami Vice," Schultz told me — and the other wore rumpled cargo shorts. They looked like anybody, only larger. They were civil enough, he said, but it didn't take long to establish that he was the man they were after.

Now alarmed and bewildered, a virgin suspect, Schultz tried to recall his movements on the previous Saturday. On his way to work, had he stopped at the Caribou Coffee Shop on Powers Ferry? Yes. Did he carry anything into the coffee shop? Sunglasses, maybe his cell phone. Reading material? No — wait. OK, he was reading an article his father had printed for him off the Web — "a scathing screed focusing on the way corporate interests have poisoned the country's media," as he described it later in an article for the Weekly Planet.

Schultz had arrived at the source of his quarrel with the FBI. He couldn't even remember who wrote the "screed" in question. But some unnamed patriot in the Caribou Coffee Shop had found Schultz and his reading material so terrifying that he called the authorities.

"We'd just like to get to the bottom of this," said the agent with muscles. "Now if we can't, then you may have a problem. And you don't want that."

We don't want that. My purpose here is not to embarrass these agents, any more than they've already embarrassed themselves. The new congressional report on its pre-9-11 performance has given the bureau all the image problems it can handle. It's possible — I can't seem to establish this — that regulations, or the Patriot Act, compel the FBI to investigate every earnest complaint from a paranoid citizen, even a citizen with a fascist chip on his shoulder and a brain the size of a mayapple. (Would agents come at 3 a.m. if I told them I saw a man in a burnoose perched in a tree?)

But a long, dark shadow has fallen across the republic when complaints of this caliber result in travesties like the harassment of Marc Schultz. Imagine a rural South in more innocent times, and a similar complaint registered with a radically different set of law enforcement officers.

Mayberry's resident Chicken Little — devout Andy Griffith buffs could name him — bursts into the sheriff's office on fire with the news. There's a suspicious stranger reading Communist propaganda in broad daylight, let's say in one of the waiting chairs at Floyd's barbershop. Deputy Fife starts to hyperventilate and reaches for the single bullet Sheriff Taylor allows him — or maybe for the phone to call in the FBI. The sheriff freezes his deputy with a raised hand — "Now calm down, Barney" — and slowly turns his chair in the direction of the gibbering snitch, all the while rearranging his face into that tired, patient half-smile that never showed his teeth. The smile he reserved for hysterics and crackpots.

Andy rises, places a firm hand on the informer's elbow and leads him out of the office and down the block to the drugstore, where he buys him a Nehi and inquires into the health of his family — and, with infinite tact, into the status of his medications.

Case closed, in Mayberry RFD. You can object that this was a TV show, a fantasy. But when was Andy Griffith more fantastical than The FBI, a show personally edited by J. Edgar Hoover? Griffith's show was a fantasy of law enforcement in a sane, sober and self-confident society, a state where free speech blesses all reading material and finks and snitches are the ones who have to explain themselves. A state, unfortunately, nothing like the United States of America since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.