The less than friendly skies.

I’m not deluding myself that anyone in the Obama administration is actually reading this blog. Still, the more of us speak up the better, so here it goes.

You did say, Mr. President, that you would support science. “Restore it to its rightful place”, if I remember correctly. You have put a good deal of money behind that promise, and we’re very grateful for that.

You must know – if not as a President then as a former academic – how much we depend on international collaboration, including travel and movement of people across borders.

The new TSA regulations, if they stay in place, will make our travel to the U.S. just about impossible.

Right now, it’s mostly affecting the holiday travellers who have to get back home from their Christmas holidays. They have no choice but to shut up and put up with it. But come January, you might see a drop in the attendance of international participants at professional meetings. Some of the NSF panelists might not show up, or institute board members, or many others who volunteer their time and expertise without compensation and expect to be treated like the decent human beings that they are. And the research stars that your top universities would like to recruit might pass on that interview because they don’t want to have to fly in diapers.

Actually, it looks like the Bathroom Rule has been rescinded, and if this is correct then that’s good news. But Canadian airports were all but paralyzed on Sunday, with many U.S.-bound flights cancelled or delayed by many hours, and as of now we’re not allowed carry-on luggage on flights from Canada to the U.S. Personally, I would not travel to a conference without a carry-on bag. Chances are too high that my checked bags won’t make it there with me, and I do need a change of clothes when I get there. (And yes, this is a Transport Canada regulation, but it was only imposed so as to meet the conditions dictated by the TSA.)

I do want to feel safe when I’m flying. I don’t mind the metal detectors at the airports and I wouldn’t want someone to pull out a gun in the middle of a flight. I just don’t see how the new regulations are helping. They’re not likely to be any more effective than the War on Shampoo, which has frustrated legitimate travellers but did not prevent the latest incident. See this essay by Bruce Schneier if you haven’t already.

And this is only the latest addition to an already long list of concerns. There are many of us who are reluctant to travel to the U.S., and not because we’re worried about terrorism. We are more concerned about the security theater, the long delays at checkpoints and the invasive search procedures. We are worried that mistaken identity or some other error will put us on a secret list and we will be turned away at the border, if not worse. We are concerned about racial profiling – there’s a large percentage of immigrants among scientists, including many with various shades of dark skin.

There are real costs to making millions of law-abiding visitors feel unwelcome, and it’s not just tourism. It’s also the less obvious things, such as the participation of international scientists in the U.S. science community. And we are only one of the many professional groups who will be adversely affected. Rumour has it that Chicago lost its Olympic bid in part due to international concerns about travelling to the U.S. That committee must be pleased right now with the decision they made.

And one more related point. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on something called “honest services fraud” in the appeal cases of Conrad Black and Bruce Weyhrauch; a third case, that of Jeffrey Skilling, is coming up shortly. Here are a few selected quotes:


Is the law violated if a worker reads the racing form after misleading the boss into thinking he was actually working? What about playing hookey to go to a ball game? Or telling the boss you liked his hat when you really didn’t? More broadly, might the law be so vague that 100 million workers might be violating it without knowing it? […]

So, the Justices wondered, if “the average citizen” cannot know what the law outlaws, can the law be constitutional?

And this:


When the government lawyer was attempting to describe what kind of personal “conflicts of interest” would violate the statute, Justice Breyer commented: “And this is supposed to be something that the average citizen…just knows all about.”

Soon, Breyer was conjuring up “comic examples” of what kind of conduct might be made criminal under this fraud provision. […] After Dreeben had attempted to defend those types of conduct as within the statute, Justice Scalia wondered why Congress did not adopt those specifics “instead of setting up this mush of language.” What, Scalia asked pointedly, “is the citizen supposed to do?…If you have a principle that the citizen is supposed to know and he is violating a criminal statute, this is just too much.”

The Chief Justice made the same point, saying that, if a citizen cannot understand the law, then it is invalid.

What a beautiful concept: law that an average citizen can understand. But this should not apply only to the likes of Mr. Black and Mr. Skilling. It should apply just as well to the millions of people who cross the border every year. Law-abiding citizens should not have to approach the checkpoint worrying that our paperwork might not be good enough, even if it meets the posted requirements as far as we can tell. We should not find ourselves in a “gotcha” situation if we have done everything we reasonably could to comply with the rules. That has not happened to me – I’m one of those types who check their paperwork several times and then bring a few extra documents just in case – but I’ve heard enough such stories to be concerned.

Wouldn’t that make for a more friendly border.

6 Comments

Filed under politics, science, travel

6 responses to “The less than friendly skies.

  1. I can only agree. Another security measure lost on me is the questioning when entering the states. Even if you’re obviously on vacation with your girlfriend, happy to have made it after a long flight in the middle of the night they still ask you all kinds of bogus and unrelated questions, making you doubt your own story.

    Who is more likely to produce a suspicious story? Someone who’s on vacation, tired after the flight and doesn’t speak english as a native language or someone who has been planning his false story for quite some time with the intent of getting past border security? This can be especially hard for scientists, some of whom are simply distracted (i.e. thinking about an upcoming conference rather than their precise schedule for the next few weeks) and might appear to contradict themselves during questioning.

  2. For those readers who just travel between the U.S. and Canada and are used to being questioned there – where are you going, how long will you be there, what’s the purpose of your visit, what do you do for a living – I should explain that this is almost unheard of throughout most of Europe. Odd as this may sound, the European border agents usually just say hello, check your passport and stamp it. That’s all.

  3. I did not know about this. Thanks. I have not booked my flights for Washington and San Diego. I will take the bus. Nice and slow.

    We must all be thankful to the authorities for repealing the ‘toilet’ laws. Surely, they would not like to take the blame for ‘Brahe’ like deaths.

    The frenzy US authorities present is quite amazing. We all know what they have been upto in the recent(or even not so recent) past. They overreact to everything. Can you believe something like ‘domino’ theory?
    Let us for the time being assume they are right at their hearts. Let us also assume I am Mr. Terrorist. Then I will know the regulations, will outwit them and hijack the plane. But, sadly if I am me, i.e. Mr. Innocent Little Kid, then I will be harassed till I give up and ‘admit’ I am the terrorist. I am not saying that security should be absent. But Moderation is certainly required.
    Reminds me of some particular incidents(possibly unrelated)
    This happened with one of my friends.
    Situation: U.S. Visa Interview at Kolkata, India
    Interviewer:So why do you want to go?
    Interviewee:I want to do my Phd.
    Interviewer:In what?
    Interviewee: In Mathematics.
    Interviewer: In what part of mathematics?
    Interviewee: L- functions and elliptic curves.
    Interviewer:oooo(In that particular ‘So amazing’ manner) Tell me about them.
    Interviewee(visibly uncomfortable) mmm mmm
    Interviewer: Go ahead.
    Interviewee goes ahead with the ideas.
    Interviewer: All I know is Calculus.
    Interviewee: mmm Okay… Let me try again….
    And the story continues.
    He was given the Visa.
    One of my friends could not pursue his Phd in Wisconsin because he was rejected Visa twice. He thought that the Visa application was rejected the first time because he forgot to shave. So he shaved and trimmed and etc etc. for the second time. Did not work…

    This happened with me.
    I was about to catch my flight to Vancouver.
    Parting words from my mother.(translated):” Son, do not fight with anyone.”
    Known for being a peace loving creature, I did not quite get the context till I reached the Canadian Authorities at the airport.
    Qn: Why are you going?
    Ans: To pursue Masters in Mathematics.
    Qn: The document says Masters in Science. Am I incorrect?
    Ans: mmm Sorry.
    Qn: So what field are you in?
    Ans: Well, I am just finished my undergraduate. I do not quite know what I like.
    Qn: The document here states ‘research intensive’ program ! If you do not have a research interest why are you going?
    Ans:(staring at my hand, watching it twitch) Ergodic theory.
    Qn: But you said you did not have a Research interest. Show me all your marksheets.
    Ans: They have been checked in.
    This was not quite the end of it as you must have guessed. I am not sure, was it having fun on our behalf or …(ahhh Indians… they are so dumb. Lets make a jackass out of them) I also had quite a merry time getting my U.S. B1/B2 Visa after coming to Vancouver. But I will spare you the merriment. If I was not on the receiving end I would have laughed my heart out.

  4. I’ve crossed the US border by plane and bus. The bus is worse, in my opinion, because they seem to have a much higher presumption that you’re up to no good.

    To be honest, I’ve had more trouble with the Canadian border. In 2007, when I was a postdoc, they searched my car three times. (I have a Canadian passport). I’ve never really had trouble with the US border.

  5. I thought a bus journey would be rather simple. Hop onto one. Sleep. Hop out of one. Small security check at both ends. End of story. Seems not. Thanks.

  6. liuxiaochuan

    Dear Professor:

    I just like reading your sarcastic short articles.