Monday, March 22, 2010

Peter Watts: An author to check out

Peter Watts was an interesting author before he became national news. But in light of his treatment at the hands of U.S. Border Police and subsequent conviction on a charge which is as absurdly broad as it is injust, I'd suggest that looking into his work now is probably the easiest way to say, "asking a police officer why you're being detained and searched should not be a felony."

You see, Watts was crossing back into Canada when he was pulled over for what has recently become a routine, random exit search. He made a mistake... a big one. He got out of his car and asked why he was being searched. What he didn't know was that getting out of your car is interpreted as a dangerous and hostile act by police. It's an unfortunate consequence of the adversarial relationship we have with our police force (and they with us) in the U.S. What happened then was a series of increasingly wrong decisions on everyone's part. Watts was ordered back in his car, which he did comply with. An officer got into his car and and punched Watts in the face. Watts was then ordered back out of his car. He asked again what was going on and why he was being treated this way. He was ordered to get down on the ground which is when he again asked why (I'm reminded of The Nightmare Before Christmas and the line, "you aren't comprehending the trouble that you're in.") This is when the police maced him with pepper spray.

In the end, Watts was charged with assault and failure to comply. The officers claimed that he struck first, but this was later refuted in court and different officers' stories were shown to diverge. Anyway, the bottom line is that he wasn't convicted of assault, but under current statutes, that failure to get down on the ground after being hit carries exactly the same penalties. That's right, he committed the same crime by inaction as by attacking a police officer.

So, on the one hand, I'd request that people please support this author. He acted in a way that certainly didn't help, but no one deserves to be hit, bullied and pepper sprayed just for (literally) getting out of line. That's not the kind of country we're supposed to be living in.

On the other hand, we clearly need to change this law. Police should be the first in line demanding that it be so. After all, under the current law, you have nothing to lose once you fail to comply with an officer. Getting physically abusive won't escalate the nature of your crime (at least in terms of the assault charge, there might be additional charges that would apply at that point)! That's just wrong, and police and average citizen alike should demand that failure to comply be separated out with a reduced penalty so that real criminals and people who are just slow to recover from being punched in the face aren't treated the same.

To those who are unsympathetic toward someone who is attacked in this way, keep in mind that purely for selfish reasons, the United States really can't afford to make every non-U.S. Citizen afraid to visit the U.S. Tourism and the sorts of business exchanges that require face-to-face meetings are essential to our continued economic growth. Incidents like this reduce the number of people coming to the U.S. which directly reduces the number of jobs in the U.S.