Saturday, December 12, 2009

a little about border guards and Peter Watts

Sometimes border guards take the job because they like going through people's underwear. Sometimes it's the only job in the area with decent pay and benefits. Sometimes they believe they're helping protect their nation.

I've been crossing the US-Canadian border for five decades because my family comes from northern Minnesota, and my parents and sister became Canadian citizens in the '80s. My experiences with Canadian guards were usually good—even when I was a young hippie who looked like the enemy of all they stood for. My experiences with American guards were usually bad—even when I became a middle-aged, conventionally dressed and coiffed fellow who drove cars that had been made within the last few years.

There were two good crossings into the US that I remember. Both were at small stations, which tend to be more pleasant than big ones. At the first, I declared a 100-pound bag of wild rice that had been given to me by my family, who were buying wild rice from Ojibwe people in northern Ontario. The guard asked, "Is that for personal use?" with a straight face. I said "Yes," and maybe I added something about the family, and we both kind of smiled, and he waved me through. He understood stocking up on the good stuff.

The other time, Emma and I mentioned we had been to a convention because we're science fiction writers. The guard had worked with Jack McDevitt, one of many people who demonstrate that you can be a customs guard and a damn fine person.

But it is always best to assume that people with authority are power-mad half-wits who will happily squash you like a bug given the least opportunity. Be very polite to them, and make no sudden moves, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

As for Peter Watts, his only mistake was being a Canadian who did not realize he had entered a third-world nation whose citizens are expected to cower before authority.

ETA: Just to make this clearer: I've known great cops, soldiers, and guards. I can't imagine a human society in which there would not be some form of cops, soldiers, or guards, simply because some people because of mental illness or greed (yes, that may be redundant) will want to make other people suffer. All societies need people who will protect the weak from the malicious.

But you're still safest with cops, soldiers, and guards if you assume they're looking for an excuse to hurt you.

ETA 2: The best way to deal with cops, soldiers, and guards is to smile and be as helpful as you possibly can. They didn't make the rules they're enforcing.


  1. I agree on the proper assumption about people with authority, however, that might grate. Years of covering the police for newspapers gave me that insight. I'm not sure DSK#1 always fully absorbed it, although he's not been a recurring guest of the local authorities or anything like that...

    My own US border experience, however comparitively innocuous, reinforces your observations. In 1983, my mother and my niece (who is biracial) came to visit me in Rochester, NY, where I worked at the time. We took a day trip over to Niagara Falls and went to the Canadian side. Coming back we were stopped at the border and got the routine questions. The first one was "what country are you from," and I answered for all of us, "U.S." He nodded to my niece (then about 16, I think) sitting in the back seat. "What country, in the back seat." U.S. Somehow I think if she had had blond hair and blue eyes and perfectly white skin, that second question would not have been asked.

  2. DSD, I added something to the post that might help.

    And you reminded me of another reason some people become border guards: they want to protect their tribalistic or racist concept of "us" from "them."

  3. I never understood the attitude on the Canadian border. The Mexican one sure, it's a warzone down there, literally. But the guys on the northern side tend to be more obnoxious than needed.

  4. Jeff, sometimes I think they just get bored, so they're looking for an excuse to raise the adrenaline. Other times, I think there's a culture of arrogance that was probably started by a northern US border guard around 1948 that spread from coast to coast.

  5. grinder, I get how you read it that way, but I know Jeff, and he's not condoning the warzone or arguing that there's a necessary amount of obnoxiousness needed on any border.

    Or if he is, we'll be arguing over lunch this weekend. *g*

  6. i don't have any facts yet on which to base an opinion on the episode involving Mr Watts & the border search, but i wonder whether you're aware of the impression a casual reader might take away from the repeated appearance of "This post has been removed by a blog administrator" next to the "grinder" nom. the irony is deepened by his choice of avatar. i'm surprised that you can't see how every appearance of that "removed" notice gives credence to the last post of his which was not removed! under the circumstances, wouldn't it be wiser to remove *all* of his comments, and pretend that he never visited at all?

  7. grinder, I think that's enough to satisfy anyone who might wonder if I'm being hasty in concluding that you're only here to be insulting. If anyone wants more of your approach to discourse, they know where to find you. Future comments made in your current style will be deleted. Go in peace.

  8. Adam, I deleted more of grinder's comments, and my answers to them as well. I mention this purely for the historical record.

  9. Since my last comment, grinder left a couple more comments that were as insulting and as insubstantial as his others, so I've deleted all of his comments. Trolls don't need my google juice. Anyone who is curious about him can search for a blogspot named grindershouse.