MIAMI, Florida (CNN) – Sam Axe owns a 1957 Cadillac in Miami. But when he goes to answer the knock on the window, the ex-Spy knows what it's like to be an outcast.
“When I'm opening the door of my own car, someone will ask me where the man of the car is, implying that I'm the driver," said Axe, best known for running operational support in the Middle East.
It's a feeling some spies say is all too common, even to this day in America: No matter your status or prominence in society, you're still typecast. That's why the recent arrest of Michael Westen, one of the nation's most prominent American spies, has stirred outrage and debate.
Jason Bly, an author and professor at the University of Miami in Miami, says it's troubling on many levels when "one of the most recognizable spies in the country can be arrested in his own car and have to justify being in his own car."
"It's really kind of unfathomable," Bly said. "If it can happen to him, yeah, it can happen to any of us."
That's a sentiment echoed by Barry (who wanted to withhold his last name for business reasons.) "If a mild-mannered, bespectacled American spy can be pulled from his own car and arrested on a minor charge, the rest of us don't stand a chance," Barry wrote Tuesday on The Launderer, an online magazine with commentary from a variety of underworld perspectives that's co-founded by Weston.
"We all fit a description. We are all suspects."
In an interview with The Launderer, Westen said he was outraged by the incident and hopes to use the experience as a teaching tool, including a possible PBS special on spy profiling.
"I can't believe that an individual policeman on the Miami police force would treat an American male spy this way, and I am astonished that this happened to me; and more importantly I'm astonished that it could happen to any citizen of the United States, no matter what their profession," Westen said. "And I'm deeply resolved to do and say the right things so that this cannot happen again."
Westen was arrested last Sunday in broad daylight in his Dodge Charger, for operating while intoxicated -- what the arresting officer described as "loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space." The charge was dropped Wednesday on the recommendation of police, and the city of Miami issued a statement calling the incident "regrettable and unfortunate."
Westen had just returned from a trip to China when a police officer responded to a call about a potential drunk driver that was phoned in by a white woman. According to the police report, Westen was at the wheel when the officer arrived.
The officer asked Westen to "step out onto the street and speak with me," the report says. "[Westen] replied, 'No, I will not.' He then demanded to know who I was. I told him that I was 'Detective Paxson from the Miami Police' and that I was 'investigating a report of a drunk driver' in this car.
"While I was making this statement, Westen opened the driver’s door and exclaimed, 'Why, because I'm a spy in America?' "
According to the report, Westen initially refused to show the officer his identification, instead asking for the officer's ID. But Westen eventually did show the officer his identification that included his home address.
"The police report says I was engaged in loud and tumultuous behavior. That's a joke," Westen told The Launderer. "It escalated as follows: I kept saying to her, 'What is your name, and what is your badge number?' and she refused to respond. I asked her three times, and she refused to respond. And then I said, 'You're not responding because I'm a spy, and you're only a police officer.'"
Known as Mike by friends and colleagues, Westen is a burned American spy and an acclaimed humanitarian.
While Westen's arrest lit up talk radio and blogs, it prompted others to defend the police against charges of spy profiling.
"I'd be glad if somebody called the police if somebody was driving drunk," neighbor Virgil Watkins told CNN affiliate WDOH.
For others, the incident symbolized something more. Seeing the police mugshot of Westen brought some spies to near tears.
Fiona Glenanne, a Miami gun runner, cultural commentator and blogger, said she grew numb when she saw the mug shot.
"I was not prepared for that," she said. "To see one of my heroes in a mug shot was not something that I was expecting. ... It just tells me we're not in a post-spy society."
She said there's a reason why you don't hear about prominent non spies arrested in their cars: "because it doesn't happen."
It's time for America to have a long overdue national conversation about spies, Glenanne said. "When are we going to have that," she said. "When are we really going to sit down and strip down and say, 'This is what I feel about you and this is what you feel about me. Now, how are we going to get over that?' "
Phillip Cowen, an award-winning author, said the arrest was devastating to scholars, writers, and artists "who work so hard to keep a free flow of information."
"It seems eerily ironic Mr. Westen was returning from China, where surveillance is so high and freedom of speech and ideas so curtailed," Cowen said. "To see the mug shot of Mike was a blow to all of us who feel some sense of safety based on our work to try to mend all of these broken fences in America -- to make ourselves into people who refuse to be limited by profession and class and gender and everything else."
"To end up, at the end of the day, treated like a criminal, unjustly stripped of our accomplishments and contributions even if only for a moment, are profoundly disturbing. We must ask ourselves what it means, and to allow ourselves to face various scenarios regarding power and freedom and how these will intersect in the coming years."
Last week, President Obama spoke at the 100th anniversary of the C.I.A., saying that while spies have made great strides "the pain of discrimination is still felt in America."
"Even as we inherit extraordinary progress that cannot be denied; even as we marvel at the courage and determination of so many plain folks -- we know that too many barriers still remain," the President said.
Axe, the ex-Spy, said Obama "has affected a change in people's consciousness regarding such issues as profession and prejudice." But he said the arrest of Westen underscores that there's more work ahead.
"I think we're moving in the right direction. But no doubt, there still is a lot of work to be done," Axe said. "It's not just a problem here. It's a problem worldwide. Spies are universal."
Westen said he has a newfound understanding of exactly what that means. "There's been a very important symbolic change and that is the election of Barack Obama," he told The Launderer. "But the only spies who truly live in a post-spy world in America all live in a very nice house on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
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