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Fri, 12 Aug 2005

On foreign travel

Next week, I'm flying out to Austin, TX to be guest of honour at ArmadilloCon 27. It's a privilege to be a guest of honour, and I'm looking forward to it. But. But. There's a fly in the ointment (and it's nothing to do with my hosts).

Over the past few years, my wife and I have visited the USA pretty regularly -- twice a year, typically -- and we have a lot of American friends. However, we're unlikely to be going back there anything like as much in future. She isn't accompanying me to ArmadilloCon, and I'm not planning any more visits to the USA without a pressing reason. Next year's worldcon can survive without me. The reason is quite simple: the US is becoming an increasingly frightening, intimidating destination for the foreign holidaymaker.

The first sign started about a year ago, when those of us who travel on the Visa Waiver scheme (residents of officially friendly EU states) were required to submit to being fingerprinted and photographed as a condition of entry. This procedure is one more normally associated with arrest and criminal prosecution; it's not something you do to your friends. While I understand the motivation behind it, which is not so much to be arbitrarily unfair to visitors as to do something -- anything -- about the huge, porous borders the USA shares with the rest of the world, it's a worrying sign of the times. Visitors are no longer welcomed, they're made to feel like suspects in a criminal investigation. Fortress America is raising its drawbridge.

Now, according to the New York times, the office of the Attorney General is contending in court that foreigners have no rights: "Foreign citizens who change planes at airports in the United States can legally be seized, detained without charges, deprived of access to a lawyer or the courts, and even denied basic necessities like food, lawyers for the government said in Brooklyn federal court yesterday."

This legal theory is being advanced in the context of the Arar case, of a Canadian citizen who, changing planes in New York, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorism (for which he was later exonerated), held in solitary confinement without access to legal advice or any charges, and subsequently bundled off to Syria for interrogation under torture.

I'm a forty-something law-abiding white British science fiction writer, and the probability of my being mistaken for a member of Al Qaida is, shall we say, low. I should have no reason to feel threatened by reasonable measures taken to prosecute terrorists. But all actions have consequences, and this legal theory has potentially devastating consequences for all visitors to the United States if it is upheld. "Anyone who presents a foreign passport at an American airport, even to make a connecting flight to another country, is seeking admission to the United States. If the government decides that the passenger is an 'inadmissible alien,' he remains legally outside the United States - and outside the reach of the Constitution - even if he is being held in a Brooklyn jail. Even if they are wrongly or illegally designated inadmissible, the government's papers say, such aliens have at most a right against 'gross physical abuse.'"

I am more alarmed by what is not being said here than by what is. The government is contending that aliens who have not been explicitly granted leave to remain have no right to due process of law, no privacy, no safety, no protection of property, nothing except a reasonable expectation that they won't be subjected to "gross physical abuse", whatever that is. Which is drawn up in such narrow terms that physical starvation and sleep deprivation -- hallmarks of torture in most civilized jurisdictions -- appear not to be included.

This isn't just about terrorists. It applies to tourists, too. In fact, it applies to anyone that any member of the immigration department doesn't like the look of. If I sneeze at the wrong time or catch the wrong eye in the INS queue as I wait to hand in my I-94 and have my passport stamped, my number just might come up. And the War on Tourism claims another victim.

If this legal theory stands up in court -- and I hope it doesn't -- then visiting the USA, or even flying on a route that crosses through US airspace, will become a profoundly uninviting experience -- much like flying into the Soviet Union during the early 1980s. There'll have to be a pressing purpose at stake before I'll risk endangering myself in that way, by putting myself beyond the legal protections offered by the courts to any law abiding person.

This doesn't mean I'm going to stop visiting the USA, but it means that I'm no longer going to do so for trivial or recreational reasons. I'll change my mind if the courts rule that aliens on US soil have rights after all, and I'm still going to ArmadilloCon -- because I said I would -- but I won't be attending SF conventions in the USA again until I feel I can do so without putting myself at risk. And I'm afraid I will have to vote against any future Worldcon bids held in the United States (or any other country that introduces such outrageous loopholes in the rule of law) until it is possible for foreigners to attend them safely.

[Discuss 9/11]

posted at: 18:36 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
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Meerkat open wire service ]
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Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

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