Saturday, March 04, 2006

Remember when we could look down on the Soviet Union?


A young Indian-American woman taking a photography class went to a DC-area train station to take pictures. Unfortunately, within twenty minutes, three commuters and a train conductor reported her for "suspicious activity" and she was questioned for half an hour by a police officer who took her camera and her film. Ultimately he let her go with the warning that he would file a suspicious persons report.

Dave Statter, a DC-area TV news reporter, investigated this further:
In 2004, and again in 2005, I sent two different, young, Caucasian, native-born, female interns around Washington armed with a disposable camera and a wireless microphone. Their instructions were to stand in a public place and shoot public buildings. While this was going on, I was with a photographer a half block down the street videotaping the interns actions and the reaction of various security guards and police.

I can report that the one place where she wasn't hassled was the White House. But on sidewalks outside DOT, NASA, EPA, IRS, Washington Marine Barracks, Ronald Reagan Building, J. Edgar Hoover Building, Justice Department, a US Capitol Police roadblock and the FBI's Washington Field Office she was confronted by security or police. In most cases when the TV camera was spotted (we were out in the open), we were also confronted.
This is America, not the former Soviet Union. It's not illegal to take pictures of public buildings, yet the guards who came out to confront the two young women gave a half-dozen detailed explanations of why it was illegal.

Why is this happening? It could be the guards have decided that they really don't want to be the first people blown up when their building is targeted — so let's stop any potential surveillance. It could be the guard's supervisors who are also following the bureaucratic imperative: I don't care what happens, as long as I don't get blamed for it. It's conceivable that the Department of Homeland Security has warned guards individually along these lines — it's not hard to imagine that they give seminars or some kind to executive branch personnel — but there is no public indication that they're doing this.

Ultimately, these restrictions come from fear, not analytical thought. We've surrounded ourselves with stupid security measures that provide reassurance, not actual security. Photos, either high-quality or from a cell phone, are not necessary when placing an ANFO bomb in a truck in front of that building. Stopping airline passengers from taking multi-tools onboard will not prevent an air-to-ground missile from taking out that entire plane later.

So what happens when there is a terrorist attack on American soil next? More hysteria, or actual security? Like battered women, will we run to the arms of the administration that has abused us?



(Kertesz study from the Eiffel tower was taken from Musée de la photographie à Charleroi. Looks like their web folks are incompetent, so this may be a better entrance if you want to explore.)

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