Saturday, March 20, 2010

They Convicted Peter Watts

Those of you who know who and what I'm talking about may be interested in reading further:

Let me add that transcripts and court records are public domain. Anyone who wants to can follow up to confirm. Essentially, Dr Watts has been found guilty of felony assault, in a court which found that at no point did he raise a hand, or offer any kind of threat in any fashion, or even attempt to impede the warrantless, unheralded search of his vehicle by the US border guards. The 'guilty' outcome is a result of the precise definition of the statute in question: very much a technicality. Given the range of things of which he was accused, and of which he was completely exonerated, this is a fucking travesty.

But it's a travesty that makes one point very, very clear. The USA is NOT the land of the free, nor the home of the brave. Not any more. And perhaps not for quite some time now.

If you live in the USA, I wish you the very best of luck, and I encourage you to do all that you reasonably can to help your country rediscover the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and in that remarkable and wholly admirable document, the US constitution. There was a damned good reason the USA was a beacon of hope for so long -- and that hope is sadly missed in these dark days.

For anyone else: if you choose to travel to the USA, you need to be sharply aware of the sweeping extent of the powers of even the meanest and least significant of (particularly Federal) authorities -- and their extreme willingness to use those powers at your expense. Dr Watts treatment at the hands of the US border authorities most closely resembles, in my memory, the autocratic and authoritarian treatment meted out by Soviet border guards in the bad old days before The Wall came down. At least the USA still has show trials before visitors are found guilty of meaningless charges; I suppose Dr Watts could easily have been 'shot trying to escape'.

I left the USA a long time ago. I've been back a couple times to visit. The way things are now, though... well, I've spoken up publically against the US position on various recent wars, and I've questioned the legitimacy of the so-called 'PATRIOT Act', and I've queried the validity of the 'Free Speech Zones' created under President Bush II. All these things are public record, and I know that various US agencies routinely aggregate data from the Internet.

What does that mean? Well, I would have no qualms about making a visit to Cuba, if I'd gone on record in opposition to the policies of their government. Nor would I fear to visit modern Russia under similar circumstances. China, now... yes, I'd think twice about China.

And regrettably, I think I have to put the USA into the same category. When 'failure to comply' becomes 'felony assault'; when a peaceable foreign national of good public character, from a friendly nation can be beaten and maced for nothing more than asking 'why' -- that's not a country where I feel safe.

Adios, America. You were a nice dream when I was a kid, but I don't think I'll be going back.


  1. And for every Peter Watts I have to wonder how many others have been subject to this. Mr Watts at least in educated, articulate and access to resources that are not available to many.

    The scenario you paint of "and I know that various US agencies routinely aggregate data from the Internet" would at least give some logical basis, however paranoid, to the way they select who to harass at the borders. I suspect it is an example of the abuse of power that can occur with any petty official with a little power. More damning is the lack of oversite that should be in place further up the chain that says 'don't be an idiot, we aren't charging him for this'.

    The more serious systemic problem is the one you outline that in the past years the US has introducing a framework which as less margin of tolerance in the way it deals with any behaviour outside an increasingly narrowly defined norm. This constriction of acceptable I think leads to a degree of groupthink that Orwell would have been familiar with.

    I am no fan of this draconian mindset that brooks no dissent. While I would not be one subject to scrutiny due to my work or my writing such as you but standing in a line at an airport and watching my eight year old be searched I can not help but think that "something is wrong here".

    I have met Americans and have found them as wonderful and as crap as any other group of people. The history of America is full of episodes of hope and despair. I imagine that they can change, by efforts and time and circumstance.

    They have had horrors such as this before, that list doesn't need to be enunciated here and yet still achieved great and noble actions.

    I hope they will overcome this period and become they best they can be again listening to as their President Lincoln called the Angels of their better nature.

  2. Watt's account is most generous. After all he has been trough, the only thing he takes issue with is the wording of the statute. Wording that made it all but impossible for the jury to not find him guilty.

  3. I should have been more clear, Mr Barnes: I'm not actually being paranoiac. What I'm saying is that this shit can happen randomly to somebody like Watts -- so it's easy to see how such routine procedural abuses of power could be used as a 'cover' to discourage anybody who happened to be on the shit list. (And did I ever mention that among the folk with whom I argued about the Bush II Iraq war there were NSA and Pentagon people?)

    I'm not suggesting I'm really a target. I'm just saying that since there's already a culture of authoritarian abuse, it would be extremely easy for someone in the right position to use that culture to target an easily compiled list of people -- and how would we ever know?

    Mister Jay -- every account I have of Watts from people who know him personally suggests he's an eminently reasonable man. And for what it's worth, I know for a fact he's been personally thanking and emailing every last individual who sent contributions to his defense fund. The email was quite unexpected, but very restrained and sane. And of course, he has no useful way of lying about the court outcomes, since all the transcripts are a matter of public record, etc.

    It's a screwed up situation. I hope the judge exercises good sense in the sentencing process.

  4. Flinthart. Yes. Can't agree more.

    What's happened to Watts is a fucking disaster.

    I guess they'll offer him a plea bargain and let him off more lightly. (Although I saw a pretty scary 4 Corners episode on that subject). Poor guy.

    I had a very small but still telling experience in cyber space regarding what happens sometimes when you criticise US policy/ the President. I made a remark on my fb page about a certain president (nothing extreme at all) then followed it with "I guess I'll be unwelcome in the US if their govt reads this page". To my shock , a US correspondent ( man in his 60s) replied: "Yes.They track these comments. You'll get to customs and they'll turn you around. You won't know why"


  5. And Flinthart, I did mean to add that I find your ideas really interesting & inteligent. I hadn't seen your blog before but it just adds to the impression I have of you from JB's Blunty (etc). Great blog :)

  6. We had a terrible incident coming across the border from Mexico in 2003. We did a 3 month road trip through Mexico and the US. We had been driving for 6 hours, we had been stuck on the Mexico side for 3 hours without any food or water. Coming back accoss the border we were saying to ourselves thank god we are back in civilisation(Mexico was a bit disapointing) , expecting to go straight through BUT we were missing a little paper tag that was supposed to be stapelled to my wifes passport. No idea what it was or what it looked like. We were sent to sit with all the Mexicans, most who looked really scared as these guys had the power of life or death over them.
    Wait an hour, have a couple of questions then sit down, wait another hour then they call my wife over and this HUGE black dude starts drilling her over and over, basically "are you a terrorist" BS . I get up and go over to find out what the hell is going on and start having a slanging match with him , he did not like pointing out that the we were actually ALLIES. Turns out being a scientist working with Viruses means you may be a bio-terrorist. They demanded my passport and did a FBI scan on me (found nothing) as I was causing "trouble" wait another 3 hours , meanwhile I was getting REALLY REALLY pissed. They just left the passports sitting there till they felt they had taught us a lesson for questioning their godliness. THEN they told customs we were suspicous and they spent another hour strip searching our car (they found a bottle of vanilla liquour we had to pay 1.50 alcohol tax on). This is on the biggest known drug crossing in the states, I bet the drug lords were happy that day. It honestly was the worst day of my life.

    PS found the missing piece of paper the next day in a book!

    Some of the people who work on that crossing have absoultely no humanity left.

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  8. what he said ^

    You're right mate, it hasn't been the land of the free for quite a while

  9. So do we know what his sentence will be? Would they extradite him from Canada for this sort of nonsense?