I've spent the last day in a funk at the news that my friend, Canadian sf writer Peter Watts was convicted of obstruction for getting out of his car at a US Border crossing and asking what was going on, then not complying fast enough when he was told to get back in the car. He faces up to two years in jail.
David Nickle, a mutual friend who worked with Peter on his defense, has a very good post on the subject, including a quote from one of the jurors:
The job of the jury was to decide whether Mr. Watts "obstructed/resisted" the custom officials. Assault was not one of the charges. What it boiled down to was Mr. Watts did not follow the instructions of the customs agents. Period. He was not violent, he was not intimidating, he was not stopping them from searching his car. He did, however, refuse to follow the commands by his non compliance. He's not a bad man by any stretch of the imagination. The customs agents escalted the situation with sarcasm and miscommunication. Unfortunately, we were not asked to convict those agents with a crime, although, in my opinion, they did commit offenses against Mr. Watts. Two wrongs don't make a right, so we had to follow the instructions as set forth to us by the judge.
That's apparently the statute: if you don't comply fast enough with a customs officer, he can beat you, gas you, jail you and then imprison you for two years. This isn't about safety, it isn't about security, it isn't about the rule of law.
It's about obedience.
Authoritarianism is a disease of the mind. It criminalizes the act of asking "why?" It is the obedience-sickness that turns good people into perpetrators and victims of atrocities great and small.
I don't know if Peter will appeal. I hope he does.
I hope he gets a jury who nullify the statute (Thanks to all who reminded me that the appellate division has panels of judges, not juries). I hope he brings a civil action against the officials who clearly played fast and loose with the truth (From David: "Under cross-examination by Mullkoff, the border guards had conceded that Peter hadn't assaulted anyone; hadn't threatened to assault anyone; and that his aggressive stance was nothing any reasonable person would consider aggressive. The allegations that he had somehow choked border guard Andrew Beaudry while Beaudry was hitting him, were demolished.").
I don't know if he will. He may decide to take his chances for a suspended sentence and forswear ever visiting America again, opting to be a writer instead of a professional litigant. I'd understand. But tonight, I'm understanding that dark place that so many of Peter's books seem to come from. I think of myself, fundamentally, as a optimist and a believer that justice can and will prevail. But in the face of that jury's decision, in face of the dishonesty of the officials, in the face of the absurdity of the statute, I feel like justice is a joke and hoping for it is a waste of time.
I'm sorry that the system failed you, Peter.
Update: More from Peter