Acid Test

There was a provocative item in yesterday’s Times. It concerned one Andrew Feldmar, a psychotherapist from Vancouver, and what happened when he tried to enter the US to pick up a friend at the Seattle airport.

Apparently Dr. Feldmar, like an awful lot of people, had experimented with LSD back in the 60’s, and had gone so far as to mention that fact in print. When he tried to cross the border last august at Blaine, Washington, a U.S. border agent entered Dr. Feldmar’s name into an Internet search engine, found a link to the inculpatory publication, and decided on the strength of it that Dr. Feldmar, as an admitted user of “narcotics”, ought not to be allowed into the country. He was detained, made to sign a declaration that he had indeed used LSD, fingerprinted, and sent back to Canada, never to be allowed Stateside again. (The Times item is available to subscribers only, but you can read his story here.)

There are two ways one might look at this, and I imagine that reactions will be quite predictably divided along conservative/liberal lines.

Those on the Right will make the reasonable point that the USA has a valid interest in regulating who enters the country, and that it makes sense to do whatever it can to learn about the background of those who seek admission. It takes only a moment to look someone up on Google, so why shouldn’t border agents do so? If it turned out that the party in question had multiple arrests for child molestation, armed robbery, or other such offenses, or was an openly declared enemy of America who had repeatedly and publicly advocated violence against its civilians, it would hardly seem imprudent to deny him entry. Why should we not use whatever tools are available in the defense of our borders?

Those on the Left are bound to be infuriated to see an inoffensive Canadian psychotherapist, surely not a threat of any sort, denied entry by a self-righteous zealot of a border guard for a victimless act of psychopharmacological experimentation that took place forty years ago, in another country, using a substance that, if I am not mistaken, was not even illegal in Canada at the time. It is likely that a majority of Americans of a certain age have used recreational drugs at some point in their lives, and to see our government acting this way is, frankly, frightening.

What’s the waka waka waka editorial position on this one? Well, first I think it is important to keep the two issues mentioned above separate. The first question should be: is it wrong in principle to Google someone as they attempt to enter the country? As mentioned above, there are indeed people we ought not to let in, and it would be good to be able to spot them. But anyone can say anything about anyone online. How are we to balance our interest in keeping out the truly bad guys against the potential for false positives, and the hardship they will cause innocent visitors?

The second question should, of course, be: who gets to decide what makes a visitor undesirable? Even if we assume that there is ample justification for Googling everyone who tries to cross the border, it is hard to see the exclusion of Dr. Feldmar, who is clearly not a threat to anyone at all, as anything but the worst sort of politically motivated holier-than-thou vindictiveness, the sort of nasty, small-minded, by-the-book attitude you might expect from a ninth-grade hall monitor. Denying Dr. Feldmar entry to the US does none of us the least good, and diminishes us as a nation. I find it embarrassing, and more than a little worrisome.

So, then, what to do? I really don’t know. It’s hard to imagine that those in charge of the security of our borders will turn their backs on the same simple and powerful technology that all the rest of us are using dozens of times a day for everything under the sun. But then the only way to prevent such foolishness as the expulsion of Dr. Feldmar would be to have Congress pass explicit guidelines for what does and does not constitute suitable grounds for refusing someone entry. I shudder with revulsion to imagine what that process would be like.

I suppose it would be entirely unreasonable to hope that we might simply behave like civilized adults.


  1. eugene says

    As a foreigner, I heard more stories on border control and visa issuing process. From what I heard, regulations in U.S. have been given enough power for border guards and visa issuers to accept or deny entries even before 9/11 happened. That was good in one aspect because we know from management aspect that by giving agents automonous control ually benefits the overall functioning of the system. But at the same time, some agents abuse their power for personal gains. (A case in Taiwan involved Visa issuer asking sexual favors from female tourists and of course what goes around turns around so he was exposed later, but it of course damaged some reputations of U.S. Some case in Russia and China involved kickback for visas)

    But even an ICE agent follows the rules, but at the current political situation makes things complex. It is just like whether a pharmacist should fill the prescription for morning emergency contraception. If the pharmacist is pious christian in Ohio, he will hold his anti-abortion position firmly and refuse to fill the prescription while a secular Chinese pharmarcist in San Francisco may just fill it without any more question. So who is right?

    I guess it is impossible to hold a commite for each case in system like a Jewish divorce court for a get, so I guess the best way to do now is: keeping quiet from Search engine…. Well, maybe no record is the best policy even on web… only 1 Billion less of human beings are connected through web, the remaing 5.5 billion has no ideas what Google is.

    Posted May 18, 2007 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Eugene,

    I guess the best way to do now is: keeping quiet from Search engine…

    Well, too late for me, though I have stories yet untold that may well have to remain that way. It’s a pity, because some of them are pretty amusing.

    Posted May 18, 2007 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  3. Let’s apply the categorical imperative to this issue. We should apply the same standards to foreigners that we would expect to apply to ourselves when we travel abroad.

    The last time I ate acid, we got a flat tire in the South Bronx on the way to a Grateful Dead concert. As a result, we missed the New Riders. I think that is punishment enough, and no right-thinking customs official should deprive me of the opportunity to spend my hard-earned spondulicks in their country.

    Posted May 18, 2007 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

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