Don’t Ask Why…

… it might be a felony.

At least, in the “land of the free.” Er, not so much.

I haven’t been following this, though I heard about the original incident, mostly because those two months with barely any internet meant I haven’t been following anything. But it seems that Dr. Peter Watts, a Canadian scientist and author, has been found guilty of, well, disobeying an order. That is, if asking, “What is the problem?” is disobeying an order.

He’s also been slammed in the media, with accusations of violence and worse, all of which he notes have been discarded by court. Certain Canadian media outlets have, it seems, decided that they’d rather misrepresent the situation of one of their own citizens rather than criticize a poorly-worded American law.

The sentencing isn’t until late April. Not sure what to do between now and then, but it seems like something ought to be doable. If you’re American, contacting your congressperson might help. The law under which he has been convicted is controversial and problematic, and maybe enough objections will help the ACLU to blast it to pieces? While I’d like to think contacting someone in the Canadian government would help, well, I doubt it, given the clown at the top of that crapheap.

I have to say, having traveled in the “developing world” (to whatever degree the dichotomy makes sense these days), I have only rarely had encounters with border officials that have been anything but pleasant. Somehow, it’s usually relatively more unpleasant in North America. (Yes, Canada, I mean you too.) Indonesian officials might want a bribe or something, but they won’t pepperspray, let alone convict, a random foreign national just for asking, “What is the problem?”and not lying down on the ground quickly enough.

Maybe because they don’t want problems with the Canadian government, where, you know, the American government knows it won’t have any. Or maybe it’s the language barrier. Maybe we Canadians should just start pretending we don’t speak English, and try prattle on in French during such situations? Hmm.

Not to make light of a ridiculous situation. But seriously, are we really just supposed to become such compliant sheep that we lay down in the dirt anytime someone in a uniform tells us to? This is not that “freedom” I was told my granddad fought in World War II for. Not at all.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Ask Why…

  1. While in college, I hauled a lot of freight between Canada and the U.S. during my summer breaks, and one of my scariest encounters came with Canadian Customs holding me for several hours on a late Saturday night/early Sunday morning (without charge) because the Canadian company the shipment was going to used fraudulent documents, so that no one would know of the valuable cargo in my truck (Cray supercomputers that were worth millions of dollars, but were listed as laundry detergent on the invoice). It also happened that we were two days early, and the company hadn’t contacted Customs with the updated manifest that is the norm when carrying high value or biological/radioactive materials.

    I wasn’t upset with the officials doing their jobs, but I was furious with my company for pulling this on me and my brother. So furious, that I quit soon after. However, that lengthy stay in that cell has always caused me to have to undergo further screening every time I visit Canada. It’s rather ironic because I eventually took a summer position with Immigration and Customs in the U.S. on the Southern border after leaving that truck driving job.

    It wasn’t long that I was seeing things in a different light about all those searches that go on and how they come about. Most people who commit a crime run directly to the border and were nearly never stopped, money launderers and gun runners also are used to just crossing over with almost no fear of being stopped, but worries about biological agents, nuclear materials, and kidnapped children are leading to more and more stops going out of the U.S. which are uncovering and stopping more and more really bad people. Sure, there are a lot of innocent people who are forced to stop and deal with the rather idiotic questions and infringement on their time, but what price would you personally put on the safety of others and the country at large?

    For all of my life in South Texas, I’ve been forced to stop 75 miles from the border, well inside the U.S., as we are asked our citizenship and our vehicles are checked for contraband (it is a functional equivalent of the U.S. border according to the law and fourth amendment). It sucks to no end, but everyone is used to it. We sure as hell don’t like it, but it is what it is.

    In that job, I learned that nations can do whatever it takes to secure their borders because the world is a scary place full of dangerous people who won’t hesitate to harm or kill. At least now with vehicles and individuals being searched and questioned on both sides, maybe more of these people will be stopped before committing any more crimes against innocent, law-abiding citizens.

    That man in question in the article may have had nothing to hide, but he also needs to realize that crossing an international border is a lot different than going from one province to another or one state to another, especially since 9/11. Personally, I did notice a lot of professional people have a lot more sense of self-importance than regular working people who let the searches wash right off their backs. So, unless you have that diplomatic passport, be prepared for a lot more random checks leaving the country. It probably didn’t help that he was in a rental car that might have come up on the computer as having a lot of irregular entries into the country which would bring up a red flag for the officers to investigate further.

    And if you ever feel like you’ve been harassed by an officer, remember their name, and head into the office after you’ve been cleared to file a complaint. It took several years, but after my last rough crossing into Canada, the elderly officer-in-charge proceeded to help me fill out a report to remove my name from a list of visitors that might need extra scrutiny after seeing how a new officer went a bit overboard running me through the system and having me wait for quite some time. The officer was in training and I was asked to forgive his exuberance. It was rather funny in the end as the was my only visit so Canada where an officer actually stamped my passport, and he even put a notation on it posting the date I had to be out of the country by.

    Anyway, nowadays, with video recorders even in cameras and cell phones, it isn’t hard to document any encounter one might have when crossing a border or even when dealing with police for that matter.

  2. John,

    I don’t know the specifics of Dr. Watts’ situation in terms of gadgets, but I do wonder whether the court would have shown the video if his lawyer had insisted on it. (Or whether it was indeed shown.)

    That freight job story is insane. I can’t imagine ending up in lockup for a night because my employer faked a shipping bill. And it’s much worse to have to undergo extra screening as a result: I’m glad you were able to get that removed. At least some people recognize dysfunction in the system.

    The thing is, I think even suspected money launderers and drug runners have a right to be told, “We’re searching your car.” I think even suspected criminals and terrorists have the right not to be bashed in the face for asking, “Why?”

    The reason is, anyone could be suspected of these things. You, indeed, spent years unfairly suspected of smuggling because of something your boss did.

    I recognize the need for forbearance when dealing with uniformed officers, especially in the Wild West, “we pwn you, punk” days since 9/11. I recognize that the annoying questions and wasted time might be worth it for the system to catch more kidnappers, human traffickers, and other criminals. (Though I haven’t seen any evidence yet, besides anecdotal, that this society-wide crackdown has led to more arrests and sensible convictions, without also leading to more police brutality, wrongful arrests and convictions, and a chilling of general criticism of authorities. Which, ultimately, seems to be the real goal of the whole post-9/11 form of governance.)

    To wit, I hardly think that asking why one is being told to do something is non-compliance. It can be integral to the act of complying, after all.

    For all of my life in South Texas, I’ve been forced to stop 75 miles from the border, well inside the U.S., as we are asked our citizenship and our vehicles are checked for contraband (it is a functional equivalent of the U.S. border according to the law and fourth amendment). It sucks to no end, but everyone is used to it. We sure as hell don’t like it, but it is what it is.

    And what I’m thinking is that this sort of system probably doesn’t work all that well at all. I hardly subscribe to the whole “evil genius” concept of terrorists and criminals that’s grown since the very day 9/11 occurred — the idea of using a plane as a bomb is extremely simple, given the right degree of callous inhumanity and right lack of resources. But it hardly takes a genius to avoid known checkpoints, to move across unpatrolled regions under cover of darkness, or to go around any barriers posed.

    I submit that if someone wanted to get a nuke into Toronto, and were clever and resourceful enough to actually get one, he would be clever and resourceful enough not to attempt to drive it through the border checkpoint. I think any middle SF author (or experienced RPG gamer) could probably find at least five loopholes for transporting such things so as to avoid detection.

    So national security is a dubious argument. I do believe, however, that the notion of it being a big scary world is not the rationale, but rather the purpose of this increasingly flamboyant security theater. The point is, rather, to convince us of how scary and dangerous the world is, so we will surrender more of our rights. Like privacy. Like not being wiretapped without a court order.

    And anyway, my issue was also about crimes against innocent, law-abiding citizens. From all I’ve seen, Watts is one. Yet he’s facing a jail term because when an officer told him to jump, his first instinct wasn’t to ask
    “How high sir?”

    And if you ever feel like you’ve been harassed by an officer, remember their name, and head into the office after you’ve been cleared to file a complaint.

    See, here’s the problem. One doesn’t want to file a complaint because: ta-da! Complaints usually require the person filing to submit his or her name. And since the organization being complained to has (a) very little in the way of filtration for weeding out bad, grudge-wielding officers, and (b) has lists of names of people for whom the organization default makes life miserable at every encounter, most people who have a negative experience will dare report it. You were lucky with the officer-in-charge. Watts was not. And really, if luck determines that, don’t you think luck might also play too much of a role in who gets stopped? And who gets away?

    In other words, the security is not smarter, it’s just more brute-computational force. One can be sure that the number of people caught is probably decreasing, proportional to the number of people being stopped, actually.

    (Not that any efficiency analysis is likely at this point.)

    And as the tightness of security increases, we can expect those the system is supposed to stop will find and exploit more and more loopholes, sidestepping the choke points altogether. And meanwhile, bigger issues about the shape of our society are at stake: between being “safe from criminals” and retaining a set of rights and freedoms, including the right to ask “Why?” and be answered when an officer of the law is telling me to do something in a nonviolent situation, I know what I choose.

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