Peter Watts is a biologist and a science fiction author who combines the two beautifully — watch his fictional presentation on vampires to a pharmacology group to see what I mean. He’s also a Canadian who was driving from the US to his home in Toronto when he was assaulted by American border guards, apparently provoked by his temerity in asking why they were rummaging through his luggage. You can read Watts’ account of the episode, or the story on BoingBoing, and Making Light, but the bottom line is this: a writer was beaten, pepper-sprayed, arrested, and threatened with two years in jail for the crime of asking questions of police…of demanding accountability and an explanation from officials of the law. He was not interfering or hindering their work, but he was requesting what we ought to minimally expect from the police: a legal justification for their actions.
I know that some people are going to rush to defend the border guards, and Patrick Hayden has already addressed this: don’t bother. There is no defense of their actions. Watts is a big nerd, not a violent thug, and any provocation he might have offered would have been physically non-threatening, and the border guards should be constrained by the law and by an expectation of civility. They don’t have any such restraint. My general experience with US border guards is that they are privileged, sneering goons who feel entitled to treat citizens of both countries with contempt. When we cross the border, we should be expected to comply with the law…but we should not be required to cower and cringe, nor should we accept any demand of the guys with guns without question. The commenters at Watts’ blog who are insisting that it’s Watts’ fault because he was obviously insufficiently subservient have got it all wrong — they’ve already given up their freedom for fear.
I’m going to be giving a talk in Winnipeg in January, and the only thing I don’t look forward to is dealing with the paranoid jerks at the border again.