Seizing countless items of great historical, cultural or financial value, authorities promised to research their treasure trove and, if necessary or possible, return it to the rightful owners.
A scene from “Monuments Men,” Director George Clooney's recent film about the allied soldiers charged with finding and returning art and other items stolen by Nazis during World War II?
A description of what happened in Munich, Germany, two years ago when prosecutors confiscated more than 1,280 pieces of art in the possession of a son of the man who somehow acquired the priceless collection during Hitler's reign of terror?
Yes, but it's what FBI agents did earlier this month to a 91-year-old rural Indiana man whose homemade museum of artifacts from around the world somehow justified turning his property into occupied territory despite the fact that nobody would explain what he had supposedly done wrong.
By all accounts, Don Miller is something of an enigma. According to the Indianapolis Star, he was a world traveler who may have performed secret missions after enlisting in the Army in World War II and later helped develop the Atomic Bomb as a member of the Manhattan Project. But if his background is murky and the manner in which he acquired his collection unclear, this much is certain: The feds wanted it so they took it, promising to return the items it took Miller a lifetime to gather to their country of origin.
It is always tricky commenting on something from afar. But according to the Associated Press, “It wasn't immediately clear how Miller acquired some of those items . . . the FBI was careful not to say they believed Miller had broken any laws.”
So what justified such a heavy-handed raid? Apparently, the agreements the United States has with at least 15 countries that prohibit importation of items that were illegally acquired.
But as I said, the FBI has made no public charge against him. What's more, people who know Miller say he's been collecting arrowheads and other artifacts since boyhood, over the years amassing everything from shrunken heads to fossils to Civil War relics to a chunk of concrete supposedly from Hitler's Berlin bunker. And at 91, his boyhood occurred long before the cultural repatriation treaties began in 1987.
If Miller obtained any of his items illegally, of course, they should be returned and his prosecution might be justified. But guilt usually induces secrecy, and Miller's museum was hardly hidden: He proudly displayed it to visitors and even the media.
Contrast that with Berlin's Cornelius Gurlitt, whose items were discovered by authorities only after they began to investigate him for alleged tax evasion. As in Miller's case, art experts will examine the works in an effort to determine if any of them were looted by Nazis.
Stealing art from Jews or other victims who may still be alive or can document prior ownership is one thing; collecting or buying artifacts is another. Who are Miller's victims? If he has victimized other countries' cultures, so have countless museums here and around the world. What's more, unless the government can prove he acquired any protected items after repatriation treaties took effect, he would have committed no crime because the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids ex post facto laws.
In other words, if what he did was legal when he did it, it's still legal and always will be.
The best construction that could possibly be applied to what the FBI did is that it must determine what happened and when, and could not leave the disputed items in Miller's possession until the facts are known. But unless the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Miller broke the law, it will owe him far more than the return of his collection.
It will owe him a profound and public apology -- and a lot of our tax dollars.
Americans who mistrust the federal government are sometimes portrayed as kooks, and the issues are not always clear. In Nevada this week, for example, the federal government began seizing the cattle of a rancher who had been ordered to remove the, from federal land way back in 1998. Rancher Cliven Bundy, however, insists the state retains control of the land. The dispute has divided politicians and attracted the attention of militia groups.
But with parts of the federal government seemingly making up or ignoring laws on an as-needed business, Bundy's daughter, Baily Bundy Logue, offered good advice no matter what happens to her father or to Miller:
“Wake up, America. Look what our ancestors fought for. We need to realize what's happening . . . This isn't about one family. This is about everybody's family.”