The privilege of authority

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.


  1. says

    Let’s have an early shot at Godwin’s law :D

    It was precisely that attitude – that state authorities may do as they please and the humble citizens have to patiently and subserviently endure all that – which was an important contributing factor in the Nazi’s rise to power.

  2. vanharris says

    The mien of US border guards hasn’t changed in the last thirty years, then. Not a good advert for new visitors.

  3. Holytape says

    Crossing into the US from Canada once, I was informed that: I had no constitutional rights. That I could be held there all night. I couldn’t win an argument (which I did win), we are at war, that my driver’s license only proved I could drive in the country (at the time it was all that was needed); my ss card only proved I could work in the country. At one point, the board guard placed his hand on his weapon and undid the holster strap. It took about two hours to cross, and I am a native born citizen without a criminal history, and I don’t have a temper.

    The virgin birth

  4. Shaggy Maniac says

    I’ve traveled both directions across the US/Canada border many times and never have been stopped by US agents when leaving the US. Is this a new and common practice?

  5. Tim_Danaher says

    Hmm. Why am I not surprised?

    In my few dealings with U.S. Border guards, they’ve consistently shown themselves to be pricks of the highest order.

  6. Noni Mausa says

    Winnipeg in January? Where & when? I’d like to be there, and then there’s the King’s Head pub afterwards…mmmmm…

  7. Moggie says

    Genuine question from a Brit with no experience of the US/Canadian border: is there a big difference in the demeanour of the US and Canadian border guards?

  8. PZ Myers says

    Yes! I’ve found Canadian guards to be bored and dutiful, and that’s about it.

    American guards tend to be hopped up on a sense of their own importance. I can’t stand them, and I’m almost always left with a sense of shame for my country (with exceptions. There have been a few that were polite and helpful.)

  9. felixthecat says

    Canadian border guards are polite, courteous, and not at all menacing. American border guards are glowering, threatening, and arrogant. They remind me of the guards in some of the less developed nations, but at least they don’t demand bribes. Even the Russian and Belorussian border guards are more polite and professional than their American counterparts.

  10. LinzeeBinzee says

    In my experience the Canadian border guards have always been nicer. But I’m Canadian so maybe that’s why!

    Can’t wait to see your talk in January! I’ve been checking the HAM site often for a date or location… Is there one set yet?

  11. alfedenzo says

    I’ve traveled both directions across the US/Canada border many times and never have been stopped by US agents when leaving the US. Is this a new and common practice?

    Reading some of the comments on Watts’ blog, apparently the key factor is that Peter was in a rented car, and that they’ve been stopping those to search when they’re heading back across the border. I have no idea why.

  12. Luke says

    I’ve also crossed many, many times just down the river at Detroit/Windsor and there is no US checkpoint when coming into Canada. Strange.

    In my experience the US guards were definitely more aggressive and intimidating than the Canadians. One time the US guards asked my wife and I if we’d ever had our fingerprints taken. I replied “Only by you you guys, the last time we came through here.” I should say, though, it’s not all the US guards who behave like that. Often we had a more friendly and welcoming reception.

    Watt’s Blindsight is a great book, and is available free (legitimately) on the internet. Recommended for fans of hard sci-fi.

  13. Celtic_Evolution says

    Traveled across the border at Niagara Falls many, many times. And while I’ve crossed most times without incident, the only time I was stopped was a nightmare, the attitude and demeanor of the border guards was simply abhorrent.

    For average, law abiding citizens, crossing the border between the US and Canada (two free, democratic, supposedly friendly nations) should never even make one think twice, let alone be nervous… but I tense up like I’ve got 200 lbs. of weed in the car every time I cross, for no other reason than I know if they do decide to stop me for a “random check”, it’s going to be a nightmare.

  14. NiChrome says

    @Moggie: Generally the Canadian guards are more friendly & courteous but you can still get a dickhead every once in a while. For example:

    I’m an American living in Ontario and I get much worse treatment from the US guards – which is why I seldom venture south anymore.

  15. Draken says

    I guess Watts could consider himself lucky he wasn’t put in diapers and orange overalls, given a sedative and flown to Syria to get the living shit tortured out of him for the next six months.

    But I do suppose he’s on the no-fly list now.

  16. Richard Eis says

    Well, of course you’re going to be arrogant and jumped up when you can get away with beating someone up, lying about it and then making them pay damages for it.

    I stopped reading Ed Brayton’s blog actually because it was just depressing case after case of this kind of thing.

  17. ursulamajor says

    Just watched the Vamp/Pharm Presentation. Brilliant! I’ll have to read some of his work soon.

  18. Unclenasty says

    As a response to #9, I’m a Brit/Canadian dual citizen. I had the misfortune of having to cross into Michigan to do a presentation to a company in the US.
    I’m not knocking Michigan. The folks in Michigan were great.
    The border guards treated me like dirt and held me up at the border for close on 4 hours. Not the greatest advert for the U.S.
    On the way back, I showed my ID to the Canadian guards and I got a smile and “Welcome Home”…

  19. aratina cage says

    NiChrome, that is some scary stuff, not too far away from Minority Report becoming a reality. About the smile the border guard flashed at you at the end of your ordeal, I wonder if people in positions of authority who act like that are really psycho enough to equate intimidation and harassment of others with a job well done.

    I’m trying to think of what kind of faulty reasoning could otherwise be behind these incidents of abuse of power, things like an increase in funding that the organization might obtain from exaggerated results, the need to appear valuable to superiors, and misplaced fear of being blamed for letting someone go who will go on to hurt others.

    My Spam! I can’t imagine having to work with such assholes as I’m sure many people in law enforcement have to at some point.

  20. scribe999 says

    Yup…like being here in NYC during the Giuliani years and 9/11. While I have the utmost respect for the law and “good” cops, just ask some of those “lawbreaking” demonstrators during the 2004 Republican National Convention about being assaulted and detained in a garage for over 24 hours without due process. I’m sick of this idea that it’s “Protect” the cops first, “Serve” the people afterwards. I’ve spoken to some cops who also see this disconnect that somehow signing up for the gig is a mandate for becoming more important than those they are sworn to serve. That being said, I’ve only been through the US/Canadian border once while driving…I wonder how Mr. Watts would have fared at the US/Mexico crossing.

  21. says

    The vampire presentation is absolutely brilliant!

    I’ve been to Canada twice, and both times I was hassled by border guards. The first time it was the Canadian border guards. The second time it was also the Canadians, but on the way back, the American border guards made the self-righteous, beaurocratic Canadians look like school children. No wonder so many of my foriegn friends endlessly complain about the US government.

  22. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    In my experience (which includes very few US/Canada transitions), border guards are the hall monitors of the adult world. A Lesotho border guard once had me back my car over a piece of rebar sticking out of the asphalt so that my tire went flat. And then he laughed and laughed. US/Mexico border agents in my experience are equilaterally ball-breaking. My experience with Canadian customs agents is not especially great, either…I think being in a warm airport, with thousands of people around tempers their behavior, but they don’t seem fundamentally different from border agents elsewhere.
    What do you expect? You take a normal person, give them a tremendous amount of authority, a judge-dredd type uniform, little supervision, and expose them to hours of crushing boredom. All such people a prone to developing a chip on their shoulder…DMV workers, highway patrol, prison guards, life guards, the guy who runs the tilt-a-whirl at the state fair (although uniforms vary). Still, I hope Watts manages to make it bad for the offenders.

  23. Gregory Greenwood says

    As a Brit who has never been to America I am in no position to judge but I wonder to what degree all these incidents of US border guards behaving like authoritarian thugs come about because of the concept of ‘fortress America’ post 9/11. Some people in ths States (probably due to watching too much Faux News) appear to think that everyone in the world and their maiden aunt is out to get dear old Uncle Sam.

    The idea that any foreigner (or indeed American citizen) crossing the border is basically guilty until proven innocent may have been inculcated into the border guards as part of the terorism hysteria of the last few years. That is not to say that the phenomenon is in any way limited to the USA. Policing in the UK has noticeably changed in tactics and level of aggression in the last few years. A prime example being the G8 conference in London in 2008 where police made unjustifiable use of so called ‘kettling’ tactics against citizens many of whom were not even involved in the protests. They then went on to violently assault a number of members of the public which resulted in the death of one man who was struck down from behind for no apparent reason. All the while many officers had not only hidden their faces behind balaclavas, but had also deliberately obscured their badge numbers so that they could not be identified or held to account.

    The entire incident was all rather reminiscent of the use of state sponsored thugs to maintain the powerbase of a totalitarian regime rather than the responsible policing of a demonstration. Most disturbingly of all, precious little has been done to prevent it happening again. It is this kind of thing that makes me fear for the protection of civil liberties in the UK.

  24. says

    It’s not just the US. Japan, the UK… What really happens is that minimum wage goons incapable of working anywhere else are high on their own power, and these are people with utter contempt for civil liberties and human rights. I hope Peter sues them into bankruptcy.

  25. Matt Penfold says

    I was reading only the other day a newspaper article on how international companies are avoiding using the US to have meetings since it seems to invariably lead to hassle with US border security for those travelling from outside the US

  26. ks says

    Genuine question from a Brit with no experience of the US/Canadian border: is there a big difference in the demeanour of the US and Canadian border guards?

    The husband and I go back and forth through Windsor/Detroit a lot, as his family mostly lives in Toronto and we live in Ohio. The US border guards are awful, every single time. Even when we get through without incident, they are invariable rude and condescending assholes who seem to be looking for a reason to cause trouble. It’s worse going through with the husband than it is by myself, because while I’m a very, very white woman with a southern accent, he’s brown and not originally from the US. And it was even worse before he got his American citizenship, because a brown Tamil guy with a Sri Lankan passport trying to cross the border after 9/11 is just asking for trouble. We’ve been pulled over so that they could harass us, his elderly mother, and once to prove that our infant son was actually our kid, because the birth certificate (this was before passports were required) didn’t have a picture on it and apparently we could have just snatched any random baby off the street and tried to pass him off as our own. The last time we visited, we were coming back late at night so as to avoid bridge traffic and got pulled over and searched “randomly”. They made us get the kids up (7 and 4 now), drag them in to the freezing cold waiting room, answer a ridiculous amount of stupid questions about what we were doing in Canada and why we were coming back home, etc., asked the kids questions about the same stuff, and searched our car. One woman in the waiting area was nice to the kids, everyone else was uniformly an asshole.

    By contrast, the Canadian border guys are almost always polite and friendly. The last trip we had one guy who seemed to want to be like ours, but generally they’re no problem at all.

  27. tonyxprice says

    Makes me think of the Propagandhi song “Fuck The Border”. A Canadian band with no shortage of opinions about just about anything.

  28. Richard Eis says

    -Most disturbingly of all, precious little has been done to prevent it happening again. It is this kind of thing that makes me fear for the protection of civil liberties in the UK.-

    Well, a G20 report was launched with recommendations in the UK. Though we will have to wait and see if anything happens with that. The problem has at least been acknowledged.

  29. Thomathy says

    Having lived in Windsor and crossing frequently between Detroit and Windsor, I add my anecdote, for all it’s worth:

    The US border guards were (and still are) well known to, from the perspective of any traveller, arbitrarily pull cars in for inspection, to interrogate the occupants, bully them or otherwise detain them at the border. My worst experience by far was being held for 3 hours for questioning when my only purpose was to go shopping. Well, I didn’t go shopping, rather I retreated back across the border when let free. I have yet to return. I do not understand the practices of American border guards.

    Let me say, however, that pre-9/11 my only worry crossing the border was that I was crossing into downtown Detroit.

  30. Ephemeriis says

    What the hell?


    When did being an asshole become a requirement for any position of power here in the US? When did our elected officials and police officers and whoever else stop being public servants and start being our jailers?

    I grew up in MN, and when I was little we’d take fairly frequent trips North to Winnipeg. I remember my folks chatting amiably with the border guards while they searched our car for contraband booze or fruit or maple syrup or whatever they were looking for.

    I remember one occasion, on the way back into the US, where the guards actually found a bottle that we shouldn’t have been carrying. The guards were pleasant, explained that it couldn’t cross the border, and simply emptied it on the ground and disposed of the bottle. No yelling, no screaming, nobody got punched in the face. And my parents were actually breaking the law by carrying that bottle across the border.

    A year or two back my wife and I took a trip to Niagara Falls, to the Canadian side. Crossing to the Canadian side was never a problem – the guards were all pleasant and professional, even when we got tagged for additional screening. We stood around and chatted with one guard while another one searched the trunk of our car. I actually asked if there was anything wrong and why we were getting additional screening. The guard answered that it was just a random lotto thing. I didn’t get punched in the face.

    Coming back to the US, however, was less pleasant. All the guards were curt and unpleasant. They seemed to be looking for an excuse to give us a hard time.

    Since that time there have been other opportunities for us to travel to Canada. We don’t live that far from Montreal. But we haven’t gone.

    I’m not at all worried about getting up to Canada… But I don’t want to have to deal with the US border guards on the way back home.

  31. Joe says

    Wow. Entirely contrary to my experiences. Lots of US/Canada border crossings, with cars, truck/5th wheel, lots of left-wing bumper stickers. Never a bit of trouble. Lost a few meats over irrational mad-cow regs, no big deal. Our Rottweiler even got treats at some crossings.

    My crossings were almost all at East/West coasts. Have not crossed at Detroit area in decades.

    Always had similar pleasant interactions with Border Patrol in highways in southwest. Amazingly enough, they never asked to look inside our 5th wheel for passengers.

  32. says

    American guards tend to be hopped up on a sense of their own importance. I can’t stand them, and I’m almost always left with a sense of shame for my country (with exceptions. There have been a few that were polite and helpful.)

    My dad was a Customs Official at the Pembina ND station, and also worked at Noyes. When he first started working there, he loved it. But a new port director came in and decided to “Change Things.” Dad is an amiable sort, he would have made a good atheist in that way. He hated the new changes because they were to be more aggressive in busts and that was not his style. He was happy with chatting with people as they came back from Canada.

    He started putting in for transfers to warm weather climes, but eventually went to real small parts where all of the people who came across were local farmers going back and forth between Manitoba and North Dakota and loved his work again.

    It was a “bad career move,” but he loved his work again.

  33. edinblack says

    …granted, the treatment Amy Goodman got was ‘special’ (that is, apparently not the usual treatment for a non-journalist) but it didn’t make it any nicer.

  34. ProudMonkey says

    I travel across the border 3 or 4 times a year at Detroit/Windsor. Canadian border guards are always nice, but definitely not laissez-faire (PZ puts it nicely above: “bored and dutiful”). The Americans guards are nothing but jerks and bullies. It seems like these are required character traits.

    I used to have long hair, and I would get pulled over and searched every single time I crossed the border into the US, even with my family with me. There I would wait for hours with the other suspicious people; curiously, none of these people were caucasian. Hmmm… It got so bad (i.e. consistent) that we started adding the extra hours into our itinerary, planning to leave an hour or two earlier than we would have otherwise. Now that I’ve lopped off my hair I don’t get searched as often, but I am always treated with vile abhorrence.

  35. redmonster says

    The last time I crossed the US/Canadian border by car was 2002. I recall the US guards being rather imperious. When they asked what was in my suitcases, the first thing that ran through my head was, “None of your goddamn business.” It’s probably a good thing I just answered on their terms.

    (Alyson Miers)

  36. Heather says

    As a Canadian living in the US, I have crossed that border many times and in multiple locations. Without fail, when heading north the Canadian guards are polite and professional. Coming back south, I’ve generally been lucky enough to get polite and professional US guards but I’ve also had a number of assholes as well. For years I was here on a student visa, and although it was relatively easy to go home for visits I didn’t go very often because I was afraid of the border crossing back into the US.

    My impression is that the border guards have less accountability than the police – they don’t need justification to search your car or your person, your attempt to cross the border is sufficient. They can prevent you from entering your country of birth for no reason other than they feel particularly pissy that day. That is far too much power for these thugs to handle.

  37. Wazza says

    My experience isn’t with the borders, but flying in to the West Coast (mostly LA, though once to SF)

    my first trip, in 1996 (way back in ancient history before the War began) was actually the worst, absolute thugs in awful conditions. Things have gotten a little better since then, in my experience… but the US border is still the worst I’ve crossed. Luckily we’re New Zealanders, so our passports are good for everywhere, but my dad has a dark tan so he looks kind of middle eastern…

    I don’t think you can blame it on work environment, though, because one of the sweetest people we’ve met on several trips to the US was a worker at O’Hare who wheeled my grandfather around in a wheelchair when we were laying over there for a couple of hours. It must be the authority that gets to them.

  38. wlrube says

    My bet is, they only signed up for the Border Patrol so they could go to Arizona and shoot themselves some illegal immigrants. Then they found out there was a whole other border with nothing but trees and inordinately friendly people, and that they’d been assigned to that border instead, so they vent their frustration on uppity Canadians and dirty liberals.

  39. Cookie says

    I am a Canadian and have crossed at the Bluewater Bridge (Port Huron/Sarnia) many times without incident. I guess I don’t match the profile but maybe if they knew I was an SF fan it would be different. There was one time when my wife and I decided it would be interesting to just explore a little bit of the Michigan area along the coast of Lake Huron. When we could not cite a specific destination we were met with great suspicion but were grudgingly allowed to enter the US.

    What puzzles me about Watts’ experience is where he was stopped. Normally as you approach the bridge from either direction you pay the tolls before crossing (and if you have the correct change you only have to slow down to toss the money in the chute) and it isn’t until you have crossed the bridge that you encounter the customs stations of the country you are entering. Were the US officials lurking at the toll booths?

  40. PZ Myers says

    It cracks me up when privileged white Ivory tower dudes get all outraged over treatment that the poor and nonwhite experience with frequency

    Strange. You won’t find this privileged white ivory tower dude suggesting that it is justifiable for the border guards to harrass the poor and non-white — it’s just as outrageous. So why complain when the dudes protest the behavior of the guards?

  41. thecdn says

    When flying out of the Calgary airport on a house hunting trip to Louisville, KY, I was told I could get my TN Visa completed by an officer there. I have never met a more bureaucratic, robotic, unresponsive person than this woman. When I answered one question with, “I don’t know”, she asked the same question as if I hadn’t said anything. So I made up an answer.

    Anyway, two weeks after this fun, I was driving across the Montana border with my wife and two young kids. The guy at the border there didn’t like the way the woman at the Calgary airport had filled out my visa paperwork – so he didn’t consider it valid. I had to wait until the NAFTA qualified guy showed up – about an hour later, and do the process again.

    Over the next couple of years I went to Windsor, Ont and back twice to renew the visa. The first time I came back across the Ambassador Bridge and was told that the one person on duty who could handle NAFTA visas (at the busiest crossing between the two countries) was at the tunnel crossing. So we went back to Windsor and over to the tunnel to be told that person was on duty at a gate and we (family in tow again) would have to wait for him to get off that shift to deal with me and the person who was already there waiting.

    In all instances dealing with this process my papers were perfectly in order, I was fully qualified for the it job in question, I have absolutely no criminal record of any kind, yet I’ve been made to feel like a criminal being interrogated.

    I agree with the theory that most US border guards are low level, poorly trained employees who are given far too much power to negatively affect others and aren’t held accountable for their actions. My first thought when I got my green card was that I won’t have to deal with these aholes anymore.

  42. Brew Dad says

    In my one instance of crossing the border from Canada back into MN after a family trip I made a promise to myself: The next time I cross into Canada it will be a one-way trip. Being treated like a criminal for no other reason than that I was trying to get back into the country after a family vacation is enough to make me glad I live in a large country just so I don’t have to cross the border again.

  43. sultmhoor says

    For every one positive experience I’ve had coming back to the US along the Detroit/Windsor border I’ve had a dozen bad ones. Even before 9/11 US Customs/DHS were jerks. I’ve only had the misfortune of having to cross back twice since 2001, and won’t ever again if I can help it because of those jerkoffs. Is this how they’re being trained to act?

  44. Quidam says

    One important thing to remember is that border guards/customs officials ARE NOT POLICE. In every country they have broad ranging powers of search and seizure that the police can only dream of. Unlike the police they need no ‘reasonable cause’ to search. They can break things to search inside them. They can reduce your vehicle to its component pieces and are not required to put it back together again. They can search your body inside and out.

    While this doesn’t excuse boorish behaviour it is worth remembering. Arguing, protesting is pointless, while you have some rights they are far diminished from your normal rights. This isn’t just a 911 thing although that has caused many customs officials to become more bloody minded.

    Canadian border guards can be iceholes too. Seizing expensive watches from girls because they had no proof they owned them before they left Canada. I have crossed borders many times, all across Europe to Turkey, North and South America, Algeria, Dubai and Indonesia. You don’t argue with border guards or even demand an explanation. Record the events and complain afterwards.

    But entering America was the only time I have been given a customer satisfaction questionnaire to complete. After thoroughly searching my baggage the official gave me a card asking me to rate him on whether he had been courteous, quick and efficient. He had, and I would recommend him to my fellow travellers for their searching needs.

  45. Nathaniel says

    I’m a born Canadian who claimed U.S. citizenship a few years ago, and I can tell you that the U.S. guards do NOT treat people of both countries the same. Coming in from overseas, I was treated to long lines, hostile treatment, fingerprinting, scowling, and all the other things people here have said.

    When I got my U.S. passport, the airport guards merrily waved me through, welcoming me home. I joked with my U.K. collegues that they offered me strawberries and champaigne Same guy, different piece of paper.

    Why are U.S. guards so awful? Part of it is U.S. exceptionalist culture, but I think a lot of it is simple:
    I think this is important and not to be overlooked.

  46. Paddy-O says

    Wow. Seeing all these comments makes me wonder quite a bit.

    Personally, I’ve travelled to Quebec through upstate NY, and haven’t had a truly bad experience in either direction. I guess I’ve been lucky – and being whiter than wonderbread might be a reason for that.

    However, it is true that I build in more time for coming back – not that I’ve been stopped for any lengthy period of time, but that others in front of me are, and of course there’s no “Easy Pass” lane for the border.

    However, going into Canada, I don’t add on even 5 minutes. One time, the woman waived me through without even looking at our passports, even though I had them in hand to give to her. She just waived her hand saying “I don’t need to see those, just tell me where you’re heading.”

    However, it seems that the boarders in the midwest area are far worse. My parents were detained and questioned along with my little sister when in the niagra falls area. They weren’t treated poorly, just inconvenienced. But I think I’d avoid those areas if I could having read all of the above.

  47. Peter Ashby says

    I’ll second Felix the Cat’s observation of Russian (and Estonian) border guards. Back in ’96 we hopped on a train in Helsinki and departed for the newly renamed St. Petersburg with our two young children and our visa in cyrilic. We passed out of Finland fine then drew up at the station on the Russian side of the border. The border guards came on the train and we presented our documents, but oh dear, it turned out that despite our application our visa was for dva persons not chetyrai persons, the kids were not there. Seemed the embassy in London had not seen too many family passports or something. But all was fine, they took our documents away, told us to stay on the train, then returned them with smiles and apologies.

    Leaving Petersburg on the night train to Tallin neither set of border guards (jackboots, submachine pistols) needed to see our children’s faces (they were asleep faces turned to the wall) and again we got smiles and efficient processing. Mind you the Russian guards turned over the Estonians in the other compartments and the Estonians turned over the Russians, but there were only voices raised in complaint and replies. So even there you are allowed to complain when they turn you over.

    Mind you, be very careful when entering New Zealand. They mean those amnesty bins for biological material, try and bring that orange or worse, that apple into the country will have you looked at in severe disappointment. They take biosecurity very seriously. However if you want your hiking boots cleaned fly into NZ, they will take them away and return them spic and span and smelling of disinfectant.

  48. CanonicalKoi says

    I guess I’ve been lucky–the Blaine guards on both sides have always been, at minimum, business-like; at best, joking. I haven’t run into any (again, either side) who’ve been jerks. That said, the ones in question were jerks. Nasty, brutish and the epitome of badge-heavy thugs. I see by Watts’ blog that they “threatened” him with video of the incident–good! The truth, then, is available. Hopefully, it leads to them being fired, criminal charges being levied and a sizable civil suit for damages being awarded. Most of the time things only get fixed if large amounts of money are involved.

    I do have to admit that the most annoying, questioning, re-questioning, lengthy, drawn-out bit of border crossing I had to deal with was leaving Britain. My bags were searched, my pockets emptied and I had to dig out every piece of ID I own (voter’s registration card included) to prove I was who I said I was. Why? I’d gotten married and my maiden name was in my passport–which also carried the official, US governmentally-blessed stamp giving my married name. Another valid reason not to change your name at time of marriage, I suppose.

  49. Kenbo says

    I have crossed several borders over the past 20 years or so and found most guards to be mouth-breathing bullies…loud, obnoxious, and full of their own sense of authority. Of course there were the occasional bright spots of humanity, but by-and-large most were bullies hiding behind their badges…like most cops I know. I realize that statement will get some reaction from some of you, but even though I am friends with these cops, I have listened to them talk about their experiences…and most of the cops/police/authorities I know personally exhibit bully-like behaviors…which amounts to the same thing.

    Any brush I have with authority reminds me of one of my favorite lines from “Blade Runner”:

    Bryant: “You know the score, pal! You’re not cop, you’re little people!”

    Wake up, little people. The “police state” is not some grim future to be afraid of….it is already here.

    [shrug] Let me be the first to welcome you guys to reality :)

    Also, PZ, I don’t think DrugMonkey was complaining…DrugMonkey seems to be pointing out it is funny how this becomes “news” (or “bloggable”—is that a word?) when someone of note experiences the same treatment the “little people” routinely receive.

  50. says

    I just think it’s the type of job that attracts thugs who enjoy bullying people. And they hold all the power, until the collective citizenship says ‘enough’.

    These stories remind me of a friend in the 80’s who was travelling from Australia (where he was born) to Ireland (where his parents came from) to see his elderly grandfather before he died.
    Now it happened that he had some distant relatives connected to the IRA (who he’d never even met), so he was flagged, snatched up at Heathrow Airport and held naked, strapped to a chair, for about 14 hours and periodically interrogated before his captors finally decided he wasn’t a terrorist.
    He said later he was convinced that he was going to be ‘disappeared’ because no one knew where he was. It would have looked like he had boarded a plane in Australia and vanished.

  51. exurbanmom says

    Everyone should be aware that Mr. Watts needs funds to mount his defense. You can donate to him by visiting his website here:

    and putting a few coins in the Kibble fund. It’s going to cost him thousands of dollars to right the wrongs here. That’s just so unfair.

  52. Lynna, OM says

    The assumption of privileged status is anathema to a democracy. I live in a place where, if you are a white male with ample mormon connections, you can get a slap on the wrist for crimes that would put a less privileged person in jail for years.

    Kimball Mason was a “devout churchman”, a former BYU graduate, etc., and he made friends with authority figures, including local police, former prosecutors, politicians, etc. Now it’s paying off because he is not being treated like the criminal he is. Unlike, Peter Watts, Kimball Mason was part of the authoritative structure, and he is being given the benefit of the doubt in a way that beggars reason:

    “The Kimball I know would not steal anything from anybody at any time,” wrote Madison County Prosecutor Sid Brown, whom Mason hired as a deputy in 1985.
         Others agreed. Many of Mason’s friends said it was simply a case of bad judgment or that his many good deeds would far outweigh his crimes.

    We need to ask ourselves why we have lost the “privilege” of equal treatment.

  53. DiscoveredJoys says

    I’ve visited the USA before (Disney World, with my family) and even before 11/9 I found the immigration process dehumanising and unpleasant. Once past the border everybody was fine.

    Even though there are many places I’d like to visit in America (Maine, Death Valley/Grand Canyon etc.) I’m refusing to go until air travel and the immigration process has been improved.

    You want my tourist dollars? Make me and mine feel welcome. Or at least human beings.

  54. Matt Penfold says

    However if you want your hiking boots cleaned fly into NZ, they will take them away and return them spic and span and smelling of disinfectant.

    They do the same in Australia. I have been there a few times as my brother and his family live in Brisbane. I always have to go through the red channel for immigration as I live on a smallholding, and like the Kiwis, the Aussies take bio-security seriously and worry I might be bringing in disease on my footwear.

    They have always been unfailing polite about it and my boots always come back lovely and clean.

  55. The Anarchist says

    And people wonder why I’m against ‘official’ collective sanctions of violence? Until people realize that the very idea of a standing police force (as opposed to individual defense) will always lead to this sort of violence and corruption. Until the people stand up for themselves in mass and throw off our oppressors, this shit will go on and on and on.

    Watts’ innocent activity was going from one geographical region to another. What’s yours? Smoking a joint? Looking for a good time? Employing someone at a non-approved wage?

    There comes a time when everyone experiences these bullies. Let’s not give these children a steady job and a gun!

    Stand up for your individual liberty!

  56. Ryan C says

    I’m going to be giving a talk in Winnipeg in January

    Can you let us know where and when? I’d be interested in attending, if possible.

    Also, why Winnipeg in January? You live in Minnesota, you know what the winters are like. Why go somewhere even colder?

  57. ckitching says

    Since “everybody knows” the 9/11 hijackers entered the US from Canada, this “fact” justifies just about anything. These border guards just want to be heroes, protecting their nation from world-be terrorists! You don’t show respect to a terrorist, do you? Since anyone crossing the border could potentially be a terrorist, no one crossing the border should be shown any respect! They’re patriots! Why do you hate America?TM

    (Yes, I know they didn’t enter via Canada, but that’s what the popular perception is. Several spokespeople from government agencies, including DHS, and even John McCain are still repeating this bit of nonsense, and it’s proving incredibly difficult to eliminate despite trying for over 8 years!)

  58. Hairhead says

    Ryan (#61) – Right now Calgary and Edmonton are colder than Winnipeg.

    Speaking from the experience of a Canadian, I find US Border officials to be uniformly hostile and threatening. I last visited the US in 2005, when I accompanied my wife to a gemmology conference in Tucson.

    On the way back we were waiting in Tucson airport having gone through screening and searching, and we had a view for 45 mins of the security area. During that time we watched several dozen people go through, and the ONLY ones taken to a cubicle and forced to disrobe were not white.

    Since that time, and especially since torture is now the official policy of the U.S. (please see the latest horrific post at, where the courts say explicitly that torture is the expected result of being detained) I have refused to visit your country.

    You guys had better fix this! You are losing tremendous amounts of money, not so much from tourism, as from Asian and European businesses who refuse to come to the U.S. to business, not just because of general border hassles, but because the U.S. has given its agents the authority to seize and examine and copy the contents of laptops, CDs/DVDs, and flash drives of all kinds. Nowadays, the standard policy of many European businesspeople is to arrive in the U.S. without computers or drives of any kind, buy a cheap computer while in the country, download from the internet the content they need for business, then dispose of the computer before heading for the border to leave.

    Many businesspeople and plain citizens are taking roundabout air routes to avoid flying over the U.S., as Homeland Security paranoia demands that all of the occupants of a plane merely flying over part of the U.S. be indentified, and in many cases, photographed and fingerprinted.

    Even the U.S.S.R. never did this.

    Sorry for the rant, but what we are seeing is merely the small symptoms of a much, much bigger and more dangerous disease.

  59. says

    I’ve never tried to drive across the border, but the American customs agents have a little outpost in my city’s airport for people flying to the US, and, unsurprisingly, those agents are just like the ones at the actual border. Actual conversation last time I went:

    Goon: Purpose of your visit?
    Me: (excited) I’m going to my grandma’s 90th birthday party!
    Goon: So your grandma’s an American citizen?
    Me: yep.
    Goon: So why don’t you have American citizenship documents?
    Me: I’m Canadian.
    Goon: You’re a dual citizen. You should have American papers.
    Me: I never got around to getting any.
    Goon: Why not?
    Me: (shrug) Just didn’t.
    Goon: Well you’d better.
    Me: Are my Canadian documents in order?
    Goon: Yes, but you should have American ones.
    Me: I don’t. My Canadian documents are in order.
    Goon: (Glares, waves me through.)

    My mistake was revealing too much information. But the goon seemed to be taking it personally/security-ly that I hadn’t already leapt for the wondrous goodness that is proof of American citizenship, because the only people that don’t want to be citizens are clearly people who hate America or something. Probably a good thing I’m white, female, and totally nonthreatening in appearance.

  60. Bing says

    My own little story about US Border crossing.

    Back in the mid 90’s the Buffalo Sabres went up against the Senators in the playoffs. I managed to score some tickets from a friend and was taking my 10 yo son to the game.

    We got to the border, I produced our birth certificates and driver’s license and explained that we were going to the hockey game when asked the purpose of our visit to the USA.

    And then the fun began. We were sent over for a secondary inspection and then detained and separated for the next 2 hours. I was grilled as to why I was attempting to abduct my son and take him out of Canada. I was told that I needed a valid custody order that would be deemed acceptable by a US judge. I told the border thugs that my wife and I were not estranged, that we had no custody issues and that all I wanted to do was to take my kid to his first NHL post-season game.

    Eventually I was told that we were to be released and that I was not to enter the US that day but to return to Canada. The game had already started by this time. And then the assholes tried to confiscate the tickets as ‘contraband’ and ‘evidence of intent to enter the US illegally’ in the words of one of the guards. Before he could take them from my hands I tore them up and threw them in the trash can in the corner. He was very pissed off, and in hindsight i

    We were escorted to our car and we drove back across the bridge to Canada.

    2 years later my wife and I were turned back at the Windsor/Detroit border when we were trying to take the kids to Cedar Point. I was on a watch list. We have never tried again, and I never will.

  61. nastasie says

    The most difficult question posed to the Chicago committee for the 2016 Olympic bid was about the difficulties foreigners face when entering the US. Obama (or whoever – I don’t remember who answered the question) said the US want to be a welcoming nation, etc, etc. But I don’t believe anyone was convinced.

    Last time I went to the US I had a visa that is issued to researchers, etc, as well as documents from the university, so the immigration official didn’t give me a hard time.

    But I don’t plan on ever going there on a tourist visa. I’m Brazilian (therefore South American, therefore someone who cannot possibly be well off enough to do tourism abroad). I don’t want to be treated like crap, so I’ll spend my money elsewhere, tyvm.

  62. PixelFish says

    I actually know Peter–he’s a member of a writing group I participate in that gets together about once a year for a week to write in the Toronto Islands. He’s unfailingly helpful and generous with writing critiques. He’s not the kind of guy to get physically combative, but he will stand on principle. (Also he rescues feral kittens!)

    Ironically, we had a conversation last year before Obama was elected, about how he’d never visit the States while Bush or Bush cronies or other conservatives were still in power, because of the draconian stuff they were trying to pull at the border. (At the time, it was often common for people’s laptops to be subject to search and seizure, and if I recall correctly, a band had lost a digital copy of their newest record because Customs decided to hold it hostage. Cory Doctorow was covering this a lot on Boing Boing.) I and other folks from the states were sharing our border-crossing stories, like the time where my cousin and I had a border guard who didn’t believe we were cousins.

    Anyway as Exurbanmom notes, you can donate to Peter’s defense fund by contributing to the Kibble fund at Rifters. (Please note it is defense fund money if you do, so it doesn’t get confused with the feral kitten fund.)

  63. blf says

    I wonder to what degree all these incidents of US border guards behaving like authoritarian thugs come about because of the concept of ‘fortress America’ post 9/11.

    It’s not. I’ve travelled between the USA and various places in Europe for over 20 years, and calling the USA border guards jerks is extremely insulting to jerks—jerks are far more polite and would also be, I suspect, far more effective at doing what the border “guards” are supposed to be doing.

    And I’m a USA citizen carrying a USA passport. (And not an obvious candidate for racial profiling or anything similar, with perhaps the exception that I don’t live in the USA.)

    Of course, there’s an exception. Once, in Chicago (O’Hare), a guard stopped me because I was only carrying a small briefcase and politely asked me if I’d forgotten to collect my luggage. I hadn’t. I simply told him I travel light, and thanked him for checking, and that was that. So a universal condemnation as all being ineffective jerks all the time isn’t true or fair (d’uh!), but the obvious tendency to ineffective goat-burning jerkdom well predates 11-9.

  64. PalMD says

    I’ve been stopped by border folks and TSA folks many times. My swarthy looks seem to get me wanded a lot at airports. I haven’t gotten major hold ups at the US/Can border since i was younger and scruffier. I find the border folks on both sides to be pretty good, although the Americans sometimes do some odd things (on my way home from a night out with friends they wanted documentation of the “american-ness” of my korean american friend who was born in MI and spoke no korean).

    But one thing in the piece struck me (not as a slight to the author, but as a revelation of our own biases):

    Watts is a big nerd, not a violent thug…

    I don’t know whether the border guards look for “thuggishness” or not, although US cops certainly do. How is a border guard supposed to know whether it is a nerd or a thug who will asplode something?

    We all share many biases with our compatriots at the border and it’s good to drag them out and examine them from time to time.

  65. the_fishiologist says

    As a Canadian, I’ve crossed the border several times from BC to WA via the Peace Arch and Blaine crossings and have never had a problem, but the US border guards are always very terse. I treat them like I treat bears – don’t make eye contact, answer questions in a low monotone, don’t provoke an attack.. That said, the line up to go to the states is almost always 2-3 hours on a weekend, and the line up to come home is rarely more than 20 minutes.

    Bing @66 (and anyone else for that matter): If you ever plan to take your child across the border without your spouse, you should always have a notarized letter from your spouse saying that you’re not attempting to abduct them. I used to go to summer camp in Spokane when I was a kid, and my mom always got a notarized letter before taking me to camp (or, when I was older, before I traveled there alone).

    Ironically, the worst border story I can tell is the time my boyfriend was meeting me in the UK and got hassled at Heathrow. I was going to pick him up from the airport in Glasgow, so he hadn’t bothered to memorize anything about where we were staying. The border guard almost sent him home. However, tensions were definitely raised because that was the same day that the “liquids in carry-ons” threat came out and all flights from London were either cancelled or delayed. His flight was the only one that made it out of Heathrow to Glasgow that day.

  66. PixelFish says

    Forgot to add: As to differences between Canadian border guards and US border guards, there does feel to be a minimal difference. I know they are all doing their jobs and that the job is dangerous, but I’ve generally had an easier time getting into Canada than I have the US, and I’m a US citizen. (I WISH I had dual. But my grandfather didn’t apply when he was eligible and so I’m not eligible.) I HAVE had issues on the Canadian side twice–once on my first time through when I didn’t know that “Have you been fingerprinted?” is code for “Have you ever been arrested?” (I have been fingerprinted–for child safety and MEPS–but never arrested for anything.) The other time I was going to consult about a job, and it was my first time so I didn’t know that if you do any work in the country, you have to have a permit and NAFTA paperwork. It took about an hour to get that sorted out, but the Canadian side was nice about it.

    On the other hand, I’ve been accused of smuggling my fiance to the states so he could get a job by the US officers. I’ve been searched three times, car and bags. (Once I had to have my bags searched because a drug dog sniffed ’em–my friends cat had been laying on them during my trip and using them as a scratching post, and I think that’s why the drug dog was extra sniffy. It certainly wasn’t because I had drugs.) I’ve had them refuse to believe my cousin was my cousin because we had different last names, and suspiciously arrived in a rental car with NY plates instead of plates from our home states. And I’ve always tensed up for the ordeal, despite living a squeaky clean life.

  67. PalMD says

    Yeah, i learned about the notarized letter last summer. They let me through with child and grandma, but i’m not risking that again.

  68. snag says

    Yes, I was stopped while LEAVING the country once. I was driving back to Sarnia from Port Huron, MI and, “after paying the bridge toll” was stopped by US inspectors.

    I told them I was surprised that they were stopping me while LEAVING the country but didn’t receive an intelligent reply. Perhaps they were looking for an escaped convict.

    This is another interesting topic because in the US, unlike the Canada RIDE program, it’s considered unconstitutional to randomly stop people with the suspicion that you MAY be committing a crime by driving under the influence. Yet, they don’t seem to have a problem stopping everyone under the suspicion that you MAY be an escaped convict. Weird how freedom is interpreted in this country.

  69. Tom says

    For what its worth (not much I suspect)

    I have stopped visiting the U.S. There is much to recommend your fine country (especially New England) but I never again want to face the misery that American air travel has become. That, and having to give my fingerprints. I had to do that on entering Utah over a year sgo. If it hadn’t been for my wife insisting on me going with her, I’d never have gone.

    I wonder what Thomas Paine (my hero) would make of it all?

  70. KI says

    Some things I’ve learned over the years:
    You will have no problems crossing into Canada, unless you’ve neglected to figure out how much tobacco and liquor your group is carrying. Our first fishing trip, we all had our individual beers and ciggies, but didn’t figure out the totals. So we got searched, with much good humor (they were breaking in a new guy, and he needed to learn the ropes), we were cool with them, since we were the fuckups who weren’t ready, in the end we had four too many cigs and were short a sixpack of what we could bring in.

    Returning, however, has been nightmarish. Always cut your hair, boys, and lie about your employment status if you don’t have a job. If you’ve been fishing, we’ve found that enthusiastic reports of your success will bore them and they will wave you through before you can regale them with your prowess as an angler.

    Anecdotal evidence: Canadian guards are mellow and folksy, American guards are totalitarian fascist assholes with an axe to grind. I don’t cross the border anymore, as I am uncomfortable with being strip-searched again.

  71. SteveM says

    This is another interesting topic because in the US, unlike the Canada RIDE program, it’s considered unconstitutional to randomly stop people with the suspicion that you MAY be committing a crime by driving under the influence. Yet, they don’t seem to have a problem stopping everyone under the suspicion that you MAY be an escaped convict.

    Oh, but it is constitutional to stop everyone for suspicion of driving under the influence. Or to use some fixed algorithm like every tenth car. It is the random aspect that is prohibited. Presumably because there is disbelief that it would be truly random and not discriminatory (say by model of car or race of driver).

  72. Tyler Montbriand says

    > I don’t know whether the border guards look for
    > “thuggishness” or not, although US cops certainly
    > do. How is a border guard supposed to know
    > whether it is a nerd or a thug who will asplode
    > something?

    They’re not allowed to cuff, punch, beat, mace, and jail a man on the theory that he might cause trouble, even if they feel threatened by his mighty tallness — hence the bogus assault charge to cover their asses.

  73. says

    A year or two before 9/11 I went to Canada on vacation. Before I left I asked the travel agent if I needed a passport, and she said not to worry about it, all I would need was a birth certificate and drivers license. Sure enough that was all the ID that the Canadians asked for so I spent a nice week in BC. Coming back home the guard asked for my passport and I explained that I thought I didn’t need one, so he detained me for a while and searched my bags. I’m glad it was pre-9/11.
    As for the vampire thing, I have two credulous friends; one a Jehovas Witless, the other a newage wiccan. I think I will email this to them and see if either of them believes it.

  74. MadScientist says

    On my few trips over the border I’ve found the US border guards to be the most ignorant red-necked pathetic high school dropout football player wannabes one can imagine. It’s much less of a hassle to fly over the border; you don’t get harassed by apes with shit for brains and an ego problem.

  75. says

    The disrespectful and obnoxious behaviour of some border guards caused me to avoid any travel south of the border into the States for the best part of a decade. I travelled extensively in other parts of the world, but avoided the US until it became absolutely necessary. Fortunately the first time I did was a surprisingly pleasant experience and the guards were all very good natured. One guard said he hoped it wouldn’t be so long before my family and I visit the US again, to which I genuinely responded that I hope so too. It’s a great country, full of wonderful people; it’s just a shame that the first impressions on entering can sometimes be far from welcoming.

  76. Sarmatae says

    This is something that has bothered me for years. I am going to be as honest here as I can, since this is anonymous I have nothing to lose.

    When I was young my father was police chief in our town for quite a few years. Grandfathers on both my mothers and fathers side were police officers, retired detectives now. One of my brothers is a MA state trooper, another brother works for the county jail in the sheriff’s dept, five of my cousins are local police officers in different surrounding towns, one works for the DEA. My wife and sister both work for state police unions. No comment on what I do sorry.

    I know the world that law enforcement people live in, I have been immersed among them all my life. There is one indelible truth at the core of this profession/lifestyle which comes with a very skewed type of worldview. The thin blue line exists. If you stand on the side of the citizenry you are a lower class citizens not worth much consideration. Just cattle to be prodded. This is the undeniable mindset that is expressed when only those who are in the brotherhood are present. I cannot call this a subculture because that does not encompass the mindset. Think of it as a stratoculture. A privileged overseer culture. I will admit I have known this since I was very young and have never had the courage to speak out against it even though I know it is wrong.

    I can’t quite express this except to say, speaking in any other alternate mindset among law enforcement peers is to betray the brotherhood and that is something akin to apostasy and comes with consequences that affects your and your families whole life, personal and professional. It only takes a few words to introduce doubt into the minds of your peers to be ostracized. No insider ever has to be told these things, or has to talk about it. It just is a very authoritarian structure.

    A perfect summation, to quote George Carlin out of context, the perceived relationship between law enforcement and the public. “It’s a big club people, and you ain’t in it”.

    The law enforcement class are for the most part consciously aware that we are the strong arm of the state and just as long as we keep doing what we are trained and recruited to do we do not have to be among the common population. These privileged positions come with a kind of free pass for a lot of things. Which has ground on my conscience for a long time.

    Hope this helps to put into perspective the point of view that boarder guards may have toward dealing with the public. One example of privilege, in boarder crossings or customs checks, once my credentials are established, neither I nor my family have ever been harassed or searched other than having to walk through a metal detector. The general populace has a right to be outraged. But you didn’t hear this from me, be careful out there.

    P.S. Do you know this actually made a knot in my stomach and I wasn’t going to post it. But what the hell.

  77. says

    Ah, I am glad to see this. Peter Watts and I have been email buddies for a few years now and I was absolutely appalled by this whole ordeal.

    Luckily it seems like the online community is behind PW on this.

    I hope the assclowns who did this get their comeuppance.

  78. tt says

    This kinds reminds me of Gatekeepers at certain blogs, who like to beat up on commenters because they ask questions that challenge their worldview. (not Pharyngula)

  79. tt says

    Incidentally, I have worked in both Canada and the USA, and have crossed at least a hundred times. I have never been harrassed. Never searched. I had a secondary inspection in my car, once, which took about 5 minutes and I was on my way. The trick is to be pleasant, answer questions directly, take off your sunglasses, and never question their authority, which means keeping your mouth shut when they are searching your car. Don’t get me wrong, he should not have been beaten up. No excuse for that. However, he could have avoided it.

  80. tt says

    Oh, of course, being white helps too in getting across without incident. Unfortunately that is true too. I have never talked to any of my African-American friends who have NOT had a problem at one of the borders.

  81. Hypatia's Daughter says

    I’m a Cdn with a green card who has lived in the US for 14 years. I drove across the border (CDA to US) yesterday, with no problem. (And I was expecting to be searched as I was driving a pickup – lots of room for contraband in the back!)
    The question is why was the US border patrol searching his car? The Cdn BP may wish to, to see what he is bringing into the CDA – but why are the US BP searching to see what he is taking from the US? (Hubby says that drug runners like to use rental cars – so perhaps that is why he was searched.)
    I have had good & bad experiences with the US BP. Hubby used to work in the US on a visa and fly to Toronto to visit me (before we moved down & before 9/11). He was held up by the US BP at TO airport until he missed his flight so many times that he decided to fly into Detroit or Buffalo and have me drive into the US to pick him up. We never had a problem crossing either way when we drove – only when he flew. Kinda wierd.

  82. Rowan says

    I typically have more difficulty returning to the US from Canada than when leaving. I go visit various cities where there are interesting exhibitions at the museums once or twice per year.

    I am a US citizen, born and raised. Average looking petite, white chick. However, when going through Montreal airport on the way back to the US in 2006 the border official checking passports began asking me questions that were highly detailed in the responses he was requiring regarding the city I was living in, as in “On what street is such and such landmark located? What structure is next door? What freeway do you take to get from X to Z?”

    I was beginning to wonder if I was going to be permitted to come home. I kept my mouth shut, but really wanted to ask, “Why am I should I not be permitted back to the land of my birth?”

    My latest visit to Victoria was much more pleasant when crossing the borders in each direction. Entered Canada through the airport in Vic and was processed for the US return in Vancouver.

  83. Sarmatae says

    What the hell? I spelled border as “boarder” twice. Should have proof read it, the fingers flew faster than the mind could keep up with I guess lol.

  84. John Morales says


    The trick is to be pleasant, answer questions directly, take off your sunglasses, and never question their authority, which means keeping your mouth shut when they are searching your car.

    IOW, kowtow. Know your place. Be a subject, not a citizen.

    You’re supporting PZ’s post title, nah?

  85. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    The only time I’ve had trouble entering the US was when I was being discharged from the Navy in 1972. My enlistment was up while the ship was in the Mediterranean. So I was flown by commercial airliner from Rome to New York City.

    I didn’t have a passport. The immigration guy wouldn’t believe that I was an American serviceman, even though I was in uniform and had a military ID card and a set of orders. I also had a wallet full of ID with my name and a Connecticut address (my ship was homeported in Groton). He asked me all sorts of questions about the military. I couldn’t answer some of them because he’d been in the Army during World War II and I was in the Navy 30 years later (I didn’t know if a Browning Automatic Rifle and an M1 Garand shot the same ammunition). It took me six hours to leave JFK airport and only because the jerk went off-shift and the guy relieving him accepted my ID.

  86. Finch says

    I’m usually not a fan of this, being a US citizen, and seeing that these are really my dollars, but in this situation, it needs to be done. Sue them. Take them for all they’re worth+legal fees. It sounds like the border patrol doesn’t have a leg on which to stand. I really mean “all they’re worth” primarily because it needs to be big so that the US border patrol realizes they can’t do this again, maybe gives them all “sensitivity training” or makes one person at each outpost a monitor for abuses of power. Something needs to be done about this.

  87. nomuse says

    Displaying the proper amount of cringe is no panacea.

    I remember the last time I flew overseas. Had all my stuff in neat zip-lock bags so they could tear through my luggage. Had my jacket hand and my belt off before I reached the front of the line. Too off my shoes and opened up my laptop bag without a murmur of objection.

    And got pulled aside for the full interview and search. “Sir,” they said with suspicion in their eyes, “You are too good at this.”

  88. Moshe Reuveni says

    This sad phenomenon is not limited to the USA. I was very close to being arrested in Manchester Airport (UK) for the crime of questioning the value of tasting the sterile water I brought with me so that my few months old son can have his food during a rather longish flight to Australia.
    This mere act of raising a very sensible question was deemed way to provocative for the English border security people to handle.
    Eventually we were forced to get rid of the sterile water and find some alternatives we could get away with at the airport’s duty free shops, but I’m still following the news to see if any babies died of starvation on flights from the UK.
    My impression? Give dumb people too much power and they will abuse it regardless of their geographical location.

  89. Donna Harris says

    For those who are wondering – yes, PZ has agreed to address our group – the Humanist Association of Manitoba. The date is Saturday, January 9th.

    However, I don’t have a topic from Prof. Myers yet.

  90. Adam Halls says

    The only time I have ever been searched entering a country was the United States.

    On a visit to florida my entire family and I were given a pat down search and made to take off our shoes.

    I was 11 years old at the time. My youngest brother would have been 7. I know potentially you could hide contraband on a 7 year old kid but bloody hell!

    In fairness the woman doing the search seemed apologetic and assured us it was just a random selection but it was still uncomfortable and weird.

  91. n says

    I’ve been back and forth more times than i care to remember, but we’ll just take the personal anecdotes as “read”.

    The critical question is: Since when has it become acceptable practice for American customs agents to pull over and search vehicles or detain and question people on their way *OUT* of the country? I mean what’s going on here?

    Too bad I won’t be able to see PZ’s talk in Winnipeg. And yes, I’m always eager to get back to the Kings Head when I’m there.

  92. Pygmy Loris says

    In 5 trips to Canada over the years, I’ve never had a problem with the border guards on either side. Maybe it’s that I’m white, female, and cute. I don’t know.

    I’ve had some trouble with the TSA agents at O’Hare not accepting my driver’s license because the picture doesn’t look like me, apparently. Now I carry my passport too just in case they ask me for two photo IDs again. The first time it happened they searched all of my luggage and patted me down while asking all sorts of questions about the info on my license.

  93. Smoggy Batzrubble OM4Jesus says

    Dear Pygmy Loris @ 101

    I am white male and cute. Could I share your passport as mine was confiscated for importing powdered ram semen into the USA.

    Yours in compatible cuteness

  94. Nanu Nanu says

    The fact that there are people defending the police’s behavior scares the shit out of me.

  95. False Prophet says

    I just finished watching Orson Welles’ “A Touch of Evil” and one of Charlton Heston’s lines seems very appropriate:

    “Bordertowns bring out the worst in a country.”

  96. Pygmy Loris says

    Dear Smoggy,

    Whereas I can sympathize with your plight, my friends tell me that I could get in trouble for lending my passport to strangers. I suggest contacting your neighborhood drug dealers. They may be able to secure a clean passport for you.

    Yours in smuggling,

    Pygmy Loris

  97. Pygmy Loris says

    I only mentioned cuteness because other recent threads have discussed the perception of female attractiveness as a major factor in social interactions with said females. In my limited experience with law enforcement, I usually don’t have a problem. I’ve only been ticketed twice, though I’ve been pulled over eight times. In contrast, the bf was ticketed nearly every time he was pulled over even though we have similar driving styles. Hmmm.

  98. flyonthewall says

    i remember going thru security at the airport with my boss. Basically, you feel like your stripping down, both of us having to get searched separately. finally when we were all done gathering up our stuff, i was worried about leaving a computer or something behind, I said to him, I feel like i’ve left something behind. He looked at me and said, yeah, its your dignity. We had a good laugh anyway.

  99. Smoggy Batzrubble OM4Jesus says

    Dear Sister Pygmy Loris,

    Please do not think I was criticizing you for mentioning your cuteness. I think one should mention all aspects of one’s physique frankly and with honesty, especially the attractive bits. As my favorite fashionista Gok Wan is wont to say, “If you’ve got lovely big fun bags show them off!!” That is why I always mention my twelve inch member and make a point of wearing my jockey shorts pulled hard up my crack.

  100. Jud says

    I’ve gotta say that ages ago when I used to travel back and forth between my native USA and Canada constantly on business, I don’t recall hassles or even bad attitude when returning to the States. A few times I got a rather cold shoulder from the Canadians (was told professionals were sometimes thought of as taking jobs from Canadians at a time when the U.S. economy was doing relatively well).

    I can well believe things have changed in the aftermath of 9/11.

    Worst border guard I ever had the displeasure of encountering was Swiss, at an Italian tunnel crossing. Hollered at us red-faced in an incomprehensible tongue (I speak just a very little German, and it sounded similar, but was literally bellowed – complete with spit – at close range so I couldn’t be sure) for 5 minutes while I, my wife and friend, all over age 45, tried to come up with responses that might possibly satisfy him – names, nationality, itinerary…. He finally appeared to give up in disgust and just waved us on.

  101. Mike Wagner says

    Two years ago I got my trucking license, just to keep busy after losing my job. During the course they took us to customs for the day, for a class on crossing the border as a commercial truck driver, and what the responsibilities are.

    The customs officers were nice enough guys, but they make a point of letting you know that at the border the guys manning the gates are like bored gods. They are all powerful and they are just itching to make their day more interesting. If you tempt them, they will mess you up.

    I lost all interest in ever doing cross-border commercial driving at that point, though I really had little desire to at the time. I just wanted the license to have for the future because license restrictions don’t get easier in bureacracies.

    I don’t have the patience to deal with power mad jerks, and if I was dealing with them dozens of times a year, something would go wrong eventually.

    People who immediately jump on Watts should look into what happens when you question the actions of people with great power and limited accountability. Just like people who believe in the integrity of our courts (both US and American) need to sit in on a few cases and see just how dangerously arbitrary they can be.

    You better hope that guard or judge isn’t constipated or had a fight with his wife this morning. If a co-worker is bitchy they might snap at you. But the other two can ruin your life in the blink of an eye.

  102. adam says

    A buddy of mine is a former border guard (Canadian). He uses this privelege to buy cheap duty free beer whenever he’s around his former workplace. Asshole.

    That said, I’ve never had much trouble crossing the border into the US. Last time was in Feb of this year, and my buddies’ car had the trunk rummaged through a little bit. He asked me (separate car) questions about where we were going, how I knew them, etc., and waved me through without a problem. We even crossed the border to go back and get some Canadian cash and crossed back in without a problem.

  103. Rorschach says

    Matt Penfold @ 27,

    I was reading only the other day a newspaper article on how international companies are avoiding using the US to have meetings since it seems to invariably lead to hassle with US border security for those travelling from outside the US

    It’s not only companies, also students/academics and tourists are less inclined to visit the US, because since 9/11 you are, as GG pointed out above, essentially guilty until proven innocent, and can be locked away and held for a week (or 48 hours?) without legal advice, a phone call or anything, just if they don’t like your face.
    Not a risk any sane tourist would want to take, if you ask me.Certainly not me.

  104. strange gods before me, OM says

    And people wonder why I’m against ‘official’ collective sanctions of violence?

    No one in this thread wondered, or asked.

    Until people realize that the very idea of a standing police force (as opposed to individual defense)

    What sort of “anarchist” thinks that every individual can afford their own defense?

    Employing someone at a non-approved wage?

    The sort of “anarchist” who thinks freedom means our right to starve to death in the streets.

    So, not an anarchist at all. Just another boring right-wing propertarian, hypocritically disrespecting PZ’s property, where your noise is unwanted and unwelcome.

  105. Jeremy says

    While I absolutely agree with PZ that the behaviour of the guards is obviously completely inappropriate, indefensible and unjustified, I think this story demonstrates very clearly what a judge told me when I was arrested a few years ago for arguing with a policeman after I was assaulted by a bouncer outside a night club (she called the charge ridiculous and threw it in case you’re curious, partially because the crime I was charged with “disobeying the direction of a police officer” stemmed from a direction that was unlawful, even though actual direction they gave me was completely different to the one they wrote in their report).

    Her advice was – go home, call a lawyer in the morning.

    You never ever gain any kind of benefit from getting into conflict with people with authority over you, and you shouldn’t assume they are reasonable people. Accept whatever they tell you to do without argument, and then when you’re out of the situation where they have control over you, take action against them.

    In my case, the bouncer who assaulted me was fired almost immediately.

  106. Virgil says

    In our experience, we’ve never had trouble at 30+ Niagara area crossings, PROVIDED the purpose of the visit was tourism/pleasure.

    The only time I got delayed more than 10 min. was coming into Canada to attend a scientific conference. Rather than just say I was attending, I let slip that I was giving a plenary lecture, and showed them the invitation letter, which straight away got the trip classified as “business” (even though I was receiving no payment). That led to more paperwork and a 40 minutes wait.

    Coming back into the US has been no problem, but I will agree the guards always seem a bit tense, and they get itchy when you do things like not rolling down the windows so they can see everyone in the vehicle. For the record, I’m a Brit living in the US, wife is Italian, and daughter is a US citizen. 3 different nationality passports and no problems. Most of them seem more interested in the variety of our family than any serious hard-line questioning.

  107. anonymous says

    I used to think the Canadian guards were very friendly until my last trip. If travelling to Ontario remove any vehicle stickers that might indicate that you are a native american. They tend to get downright american on you

  108. chris says

    I’ve been going through border crossings for 35 years to and from Canada and on both sides the guards have been nothing but courteous, professional, and quick. Usually these have been Maine/New Brunswick crossings, so maybe in other states it is different. I am sorry to hear that so many people feel the guards are thugs and have had bad experiences. Good luck to Mr. Watts

  109. DitDatDot says

    Since several people have yet to master Google…

    Humanist Association of Manitoba

    Annual General Meeting
    Saturday, January 9, 2010
    Club Regent Casino Hotel
    1415 Regent Avenue West
    Special Guest Speaker: PZ Myers

  110. DitDatDot says

    Hmm, I see there’s no “Winnipeg” in my post to search out. Let’s try that again.

    Since several people have yet to master Google…

    Humanist Association of Manitoba

    Annual General Meeting
    Saturday, January 9, 2010
    Club Regent Casino Hotel
    1415 Regent Avenue West
    Special Guest Speaker: PZ Myers

  111. hyphenate says

    In my own experience, there is good and bad in all walks of life and in all jobs in the world. Boy, does that sound like a cliche! But it’s true. I’ve been through US/Canadian border crossings most of my life, as a child spending summers at my grandparents’ farm on Cape Breton, to an adult, spending time in Toronto, one of my favorite cities in the world. When I was about 11, I smuggled a kitten home from Cape Breton to Boston, something which, in the 60s was a lot less “criminal” than it would be today, but I can’t help feeling that we’ve become so paranoid in the present that someone even looking in the wrong direction can be construed (by some!) as being insubordinate.

    OTOH, there are a few glaring problems I see in the arresting (customs) officer’s statement, primarily, how in the name of all creation (just kidding!) could Dr. Watts possibly be assaulting Ofc. Beaudry while seated in his vehicle?


    The customs officer, Andrew Beaudry, then tried to get Watts out of the vehicle, a 2010 Toyota sport utility vehicle owned by Hertz Vehicles of Seattle.

    During the attempt to get Watts out of the vehicle, Watts grabbed Beaudry “by the collar of his uniform and began choking” the officer, the report states.

    The officer broke free of Watts and he “did give the subject two elbow strikes to the subject’s chest and chin area and a knee strike and was able to break free from the subject in the vehicle.”

    Once the officer separated from Watts, “the subject did come out of the vehicle and still continued to be aggressive towards officers and were (sic) ignoring their commands to go into the arrest positions.”

    I fail to see how a man as tall as Dr. Watts appears to be, could have been able to grab Beaudry by his collar–in the simple impossibility that he would never have had the strength to accomplish any kind of a solid grip from a) his height, b) the additional height of the SUV, and c) the angle from which Beaudry would have come.

    The report continues:

    Beaudry then sprayed Watts in the face with pepper spray. The spray “did not appear to have any effect on the subject as he wiped his face off and continued to ignore commands from officers.”

    Oh come on! “Continued to ignore?” Perhaps Beaudry hasn’t seen enough instances of pepper-spraying, because the only damned reaction I’ve ever seen has been that of complete SHOCK! Shock would certainly put a different face on the incident, and would assuredly show–more than completely–that Beaudry is an arrogant, authoritarian pissant who has to beat the shit out of people who are smarter than he is, just to show he has any kind of balls whatsoever.

    PS: There are a couple of things which have gotten muddled in the different articles about the incident: Watt was with a friend who did not leave the car, and who saw the entire incident. He was also arrested, interrogated, but not charged. I guess the witness had to be discredited so he couldn’t testify in the trial, if it comes to that. The second thing is that this did not happen at the border. Several days prior to the event, there was a major drug bust in that immediate area, and the Customs people were probably looking for another bust. I don’t think the cameras at the border are going to have any kind of evidence to prove Dr. Watts is telling the truth, which is unfortunate.

    Let’s face it: as a result of the Bush/Cheney happy hour, illegal search and seizure isn’t so illegal anymore. Under the aegis of “Homeland Security” the offending law “enforcement” officers can dole out any and all the sadism they want to, without anyone protesting against it. Just ask anyone in Arizona who has suffered under the brutality of Joe Arpaio or who has been water-boarded.

  112. Grinder says

    I think this was simple, and that facts and logic point quite strongly in favor of the police and against Watts.

    He says he exited his car at the border to ask “what was going on.” What did he think was going on? He was at a border, and the agents were searching his car. I don’t have a Ph.D. myself, but when I’ve crossed borders, including that one, there wasn’t a whole lot of doubt as to what was going on.

    What burning question demanded an answer while they were searching his car, as opposed to afterwards? Why didn’t he get back inside when told to, and why did he scuffle with police when arrested?

    Watts and his supporters have refused to answer those basic questions, or even to consider them. Instead, they offer general grievances against American foreign policy and police. It’s a dodge, and they know it.

    All of this is illustrative of the ongoing tribalization of society. Whether you’re part of the Palin Tribe or the Watts Tribe, you stop searching for facts, quit thinking anything through in a logical fashion, and aggressively attack those who do.

    In this case, Watts and his supporters, on their websites, have harassed and eventually censored those who disagree with their favored version of events. It’s sad yet amusing, coming from a group that generally thinks of itself as freethinkers. Yes, as long as you reach their conclusions.

    I have to ask with regard to the censorship: What is everyone so afraid of? Thoughtcrime?

    I think the worst that could be speculated about the border agents is a lack of charm. It wouldn’t do any harm to put these people through the same charm school that was applied to TSA airport screeners, but a lack of charm does not excluse Peter Watt’s juvenile behavior that day.

    If nothing else, he learned what kids usually learn early in school: The rules apply to you, too. Yeah, Peter, you. The Ph.D., the books, and the Hugo Awards, and the good intentions, and the smug Canadian aura, none of it cuts any ice at the border. Just shut up and open the trunk. Really.

    Border searches are part of borders, and have been for hundreds and hundreds of years. Welcome to the real world.

  113. trishymouse says

    I grew up on U.S./Canadian border near Pembina, North Dakota. I regularly went back and forth via Noyes, MN/Pembina, ND and Emerson, Manitoba ports. We were almost always waived through. Yes, by both countries. They knew us, we were neighbors and friends. Boy, those days are long gone! (read my blog about my hometown area and its history, at )