Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Poor, Smug Peter Watts: An Ego Bruised

To the barricades!

Peter Watts is a Canadian science fiction author whose name I'd never heard until a week ago. I still don't know who he is other than that he writes books that some people like -- and that he doesn't seem to accept the reality the guards at the U.S.-Canadian border have the right to stop you and search your car. And that if you screw around with them, you'll be arrested and maybe even prosecuted for it.

The incident happened December 8th in Port Huron, Mich., where there is a bridge and border crossing into Canada. I have crossed at Port Huron three or four times, most recently when I visited Toronto this past September. Typically, people are questioned and cars are (sometimes) inspected by guards of the country that you're entering. Cross into Canada, and the Canadians do it. Cross into the U.S., and the Americans do it.

In addition to the standard procedure, the U.S. sometimes stops outgoing travelers at random for a check. It's basically about drugs, with a dash of post-9/11 security enhancement. Peter Watts was returning to Canada, and he was selected at random for an outbound screening after paying the toll on the bridge back to Canada. That's where the jailarity ensued.

Instead of sighing and letting the agents do their thing, Mr. Watts stormed out of his vehicle to protest. The border guards ordered him back into his car. When he refused the order, the guards arrested him. He scuffled with them; the guards say Watts tried to choke one of them, and Watts claims that he was "beaten." We do know that the police impounded his rental car, threw him in their jail for a few hours, and have filed charges.

U.S. newspaper account

Because Mr. Watts is a smug writer with an equally smug fan base, he was able to gin up some publicity, first on a popular blog, and then in one of Canada's newspapers that picked up on the blog account. And of course, his own blog has offered its own searching, comprehensive account biased version, complete with fawning support from his peanut gallery. Most recently, when criticized for his behavior and challenged to explain his behavior that day, Mr. Watts took the coward's way out, refusing a complete explanation and censoring his critics.

Peter, your story happened to have caught the attention of this reader, who has traveled to 25 countries, crossing national borders more times than he can count. That includes the Canadian border, where oddly enough, there are border guards and inspection stations. On both sides. Guess what? You don't screw around with border guards. Not yours, not ours, not anyone's. They don't care how many books you've written.

Be careful what you wish for, Peter. And good luck on your future crossings. Hope you're not in any hurry.


The Port Huron, Mich. district attorney apparently has said that Peter Watts won't be prosecuted for his border hijinks. Does that mean Peter will now explain why he stormed out of his car to cause a confrontation, refused an order to get back inside, and scuffled with police? Mr. Watts refuses to provide such information, calling it "evidentiary."

Now that there's no chance he'll actually be held accountable for his behavior, Peter Watts ought to be able to tell us why he chose to be such a jerk. I won't be holding my breath for his explanation, much less any actual discussion with this garden-variety juvenile. When things don't go his way, what does a child do? Like Peter Watts, he picks up his marbles and storms off in search of someone else to blame.

Second Follow-Up

The Times-Herald of Port Huron, Mich. obtained a copy of the police report on the incident. It details Watt's irate behavior on Dec. 8th, his refusal to get back into his car, and his struggle with the officers who arrested him. Watts and his fans have argued that he exited his car merely to ask the officers "what was going on." Is that a lightbulb joke, as in "How many Canadian sci-fi authors with a doctorate does it take to ask the border patrol what's going on as they search a car at the border?"

In any case, from the newspaper's rendering of the police report, it's reasonably clear that Watts intended to provoke an incident that day. Peter, if nothing else, you should have learned that America is a country where anyone's dreams can come true.

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