Yup. This is why I married him.
Over the past several years, I have avoided blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the like for one very simple reason: I am very sure that there just is not a sufficient number of people in the world who actually care about what I am thinking or doing on a daily basis to justify the effort. When I was much younger than I am today, my brother described the internet as follows: “It’s just like tv, if there were millions of channels but almost all of them were static.” Do I want to become one more channel of static? Not really. But once in a while I do feel the need to say something, and I do wish that I had a platform on which to say it. So, just this once, I have asked my lovely wife to post this minor rant on my behalf.
The abuse of Peter Watts at the hand of U.S. law enforcement is near and dear to me, not just because Dr. Watts is a friend and (I am sure) innocent, but because I have always been somewhat fascinated by the issue of power and authority. I have spent the day surfing the comment threads of the various sites that have reported on this, and it’s quite clear to me that stories like this are a very powerful Rorschach test. When it comes down to an altercation between law enforcement and the individual, whose story do we believe and why? Like it or not, civilization runs on power structure and hierarchy, and those power structures are defined by laws and maintained by law enforcement personnel. Despite what libertarians would like you to believe, civilization as we know it could not function without them. So I don’t want you to think that I am against law enforcement, because that’s certainly not the case. The sticking point is always “who has the power?”, “how much?”, and “who watches the Watchmen?” (just in case you thought I’d missed the obvious play on mentioning Rorschach in the midst of a discussion of power and authority).
I will not reiterate the arguments over “they wouldn’t have done it without provocation”, “cops are fascist assholes”, or “post 9/11 paranoia” because that has all been done, better than I could say it. I was most interested by the huge number of stories posted by people recounting their own experiences with border officials. There are those that say that they have been through the border many times without incident (and use this to justify their belief that Peter deserved what he got) and surprisingly many that relate similar horror stories, throwing their support behind Peter for it. I can say that I have a few stories of my own in that regard.
Every time I go through a border crossing, and that has been far, far, too many times over the last decade, I am reminded of my first trip to South Korea. It’s a long story that I won’t bore you with, but the crux of the matter is that I lacked the proper paperwork to bring into the country the goods that I had with me. It was the fault of my company for not having prepared this paperwork, and my own naivete in assuming that the company would know what it was doing, but in any case, I fully admit that I was legally in the wrong. In that moment when I realized that I had clearly broken Korean law, I was really afraid. It was 12:30am, I had been awake for about 30 hours straight, and I was desperately babbling apologies and explanations. I couldn’t stop thinking of horror stories just like Peter’s. Bear in mind that this is South Korea: a country that had been (technically, if not in practice) in a state of war for half a century with a northern neighbour run by a psychotic megalomaniacal dictator. If there are countries in the world that have a right to be paranoid about their borders, surely South Korea is at the top of the list. Still, the customs official that I dealt with was polite, courteous, and accommodating. He listened to what I had to say, and came up with a compromise to satisfy Korean law as well as allowing me to stay out of prison and do the job I had gone there to do. Now here’s the punchline: when this was done, he pointed to where my package suffered water damage through being mishandled by airline workers and said to me “look at this! It’s shameful treatment of a customer’s luggage.” He then sent his colleague to find out the airline I had traveled on, so he could file a report to reprimand them. In short, he treated me like he would want to be treated; with empathy and understanding, like a human being.
I have crossed the Canada-U.S. border more times than I can count. My family is from Sarnia, so I have passed through the very crossing that Peter was mistreated at regularly almost since the day I was born. It is very possible that I just got lucky that night, and that any other official in that airport, that night, would have treated me no different than a Canadian or a U.S. customs and immigration official. I don’t know. But I can say, without hesitation, that I cannot imagine a Canadian or a U.S. border guard treating me any where near as well as that Korean official. I look back on the many comments that people have posted about their own experiences with border crossings and I realize that even the ones who say their experiences have been “positive” usually mean “they have never had any trouble.” Of my many, many trips across the Canada-U.S. border, I have very rarely had any trouble, but just as rarely have I been treated like a human being. Even when I have been waved through without incident, the officials that I have dealt with have almost always been impolite, surly, and superior. Most of the time I’m so glad to get through without incident that I don’t care. I can count on one hand the number of times a customs and immigration official of either nation has actually been nice to me. Since when did “at least I didn’t get strip-searched and beaten” become our standard of service?
Once again, I think of that first trip to Korea. What could have very easily been the worst experience of my life ended up being one of my most positive memories of my three visits to that country. In North America, we have this idea that if a law enforcement official is not being an asshole, then they’re not doing their job: rigourousness is directly proportional to dickishness. This is simply not the case. The official in Korea did not let me get away with anything. He held the goods in question until the paperwork was straightened out, and kept a record of my passport and where I was staying in case they needed to get a hold of me. He was more rigourous than most border guards I have met going between Canada and the U.S. He just wasn’t a dick about it, that’s the difference. Our law enforcement personnel seem to think that they need to scare us into telling the truth or being good, and then interprete any sign of anxiety as a guilty conscience: it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So we come back to the case of Peter Watts. Maybe he was angry and belligerent with the border guards. Maybe he mouthed off to them. Is that a crime now? Maybe, if you believe in the worst case scenario, they actually did catch him breaking the law and he did try to choke one of them. Knowing him as I do, I don’t believe it for one second, but even if you do, should he have be beaten, denied access to legal advice, and thrown out in the bitter cold? Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, this issue has come up again and again, with torture in Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, and the increasing number of reports of unchecked brutality by law enforcement officials. Don’t think for one second that the experience of Mr. Watts is an isolated one. Arguers on both sides of the issue always seem to boil it down to “did he deserve it?” The comments threads on every site that has posted this story are overflowing with it. That’s the wrong question to ask. The proper question, in a free and democratic society, is not “did he deserve it?” but “even if he did deserve it, should these people be allowed to do it?”
Here’s the Rorschach test: do you think that law enforcement officials should be allowed to punch, kick, and otherwise assault an individual, regardless of whether they have any evidence of a crime? Even if they do have evidence; even if he has been found guilty (neither of which is anywhere near true in this case), should they have free reign to use someone as a punching bag? I had a history teacher in high school who used to say “the first question you have to ask yourself is ‘what kind of a world do I want to live in’?” Well I don’t know about you, but the bottom line is, that’s not the kind of world that I want to live in.
“The second question,” my history teacher used to say, “is how do I make that world a reality?” I’m sorry to say that I don’t know that. I think that oversight would be a hell of a first step. Anyone, regardless of nationality or circumstances, should have an independent body that they can complain to, with the power to investigate and reprimand these people when they step out of line. If we can’t get an international body to do it, we should at least have something in our own country that oversees our own border officials, and somebody in our Foreign Service that can help people vicimized by foreign powers. I would like to see an end to this “treat everyone like a criminal” attitude, too. Drill it into these border guards that they don’t have to dehumanize people to be strict and careful with them. All other objections aside, I have yet to see any compelling evidence that treating people (even criminals, let alone those only suspected of a crime) like shit does anything at all to make us all any safer. And that’s really the point, isn’t it? The more time we spend arguing over did he deserve it or didn’t he deserve it, the less time we have to think about whether or not this kind of behaviour, on the part of law enforcement officials is actually doing what we want it to do: make us safer.
Is all this a pipe dream? Maybe. But I do know one thing: I put my money where my mouth is, and right now my money is going to the Niblet Memorial Kibble Fund. If it goes towards lawyers for Mr. Watts instead of kibble then I think, just this once, Niblet won’t mind. No one hates overbearing authority (when it’s not their own), more than cats.