09 June 2008

What Do Terrorist Plots and Photography Have In Common?

Nothing. At least for those who bother to look and to think.

"Since 9/11, there has been an increasing war on photography. Photographers have been harrassed, questioned, detained, arrested or worse, and declared to be unwelcome. We've been repeatedly told to watch out for photographers, especially suspicious ones. Clearly any terrorist is going to first photograph his target, so vigilance is required.

Except that it's nonsense. The 9/11 terrorists didn't photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn't photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn't photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren't being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn't known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about -- the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 -- no photography."
A nice observation from this nice essay in The Guardian last week. The author goes on to note:
"Fear aside, there aren't many legal restrictions on what you can photograph from a public place that's already in public view. If you're harassed, it's almost certainly a law enforcement official, public or private, acting way beyond his authority. There's nothing in any post-9/11 law that restricts your right to photograph.

This is worth fighting. Search "photographer rights" on Google and download one of the several wallet documents that can help you if you get harassed; I found one for the UK, US, and Australia. Don't cede your right to photograph in public. Don't propagate the terrorist photographer story. Remind them that prohibiting photography was something we used to ridicule about the USSR."
Just So. We don't live in a movie. We live in the world. But the way movies reflexively come to govern our assessment of situations and risks is interesting. Framing is a powerful psychological mechanism. One more reason to criticize TV shows like "24" that perpetuate the 'ticking time bomb' scenarios that seem to justify torture.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous John said...

I write as one of many amateur photographers whose ambition exceeds his achievement. Tonight I surpassed all previous accomplishments, having just been thrown off the campus of the University of Vermont for photographing a shadow on the façade of the medical school. Since I was on public property, in a public place traversed by probably several thousand people on any given weekday, photographing something in plain view, I had to ask what the problem was. I was told by the security guards—two of them—I was a “threat to homeland security,” a status to which I hadn’t aspired but one that no doubt surpasses my previous station in life as “some half baked photographer.”

This is not the first time I have encountered such loopiness. Two years ago I was chased out of an open air shopping mall because offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were on the second floor above the stores. Not the main office, mind you, but only auxiliary offices, and not hidden away behind high walls, razor wire or a crocodile filled moat, but in a shopping mall visited by thousands, or so it is hoped. I was perceived as a threat for having the temerity to take a photograph in the vicinity of some low level federal employees who, quite frankly, enjoy no particular security at all apart from being included in a Kodak moment. Only this past winter I was ordered not to photograph a sign reading “shop on” inside the Burlington Square Mall for reasons of—and I kid not—“intellectual property.” Then there is the precious episode currently making rounds on the internet, lifted not from Monty Python but from real life, of a Fox News reporter's investigation of photographers being harassed in Union Station in our nation’s capitol. An official with Amtrak assures the journalist on camera that there is absolutely no law against photography in Union Station only to be interrupted by a security guard telling the journalist it was illegal to use a camera in Union Station.

Come to think of it, UVM offers courses in photography. I wonder where the students are supposed to complete their projects if on campus is off limits. One thing is certain; they had better keep their cell phones in their pockets.

At times like these I have to ask myself, “What country am I living in again?” This is not China, North Korea, Myanmar-Formerly-Known-as-Burma, Iran or Saudi Arabia. This is the United States, a place where—last I was informed—the First Amendment of the Constitution, which covers photography, is still good law. I had long understood the United States to be a place where law abiding individuals could go about their own business and need not live in fear of being accosted by authorities on whatever whim strikes their fancy. We used to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” not the land of the fearful overseen by the suspicious.

Taking a photograph is not a crime and it is certainly not a terrorist act. And I think it is no slight to the prestige of the UVM medical school to suggest that it lacks the symbolic value of, say, the Pentagon, that would make it a likely terrorist target in any event.

It is high time we reign in the egos and the paranoia of our government and all its functionaries, high or petty. No matter how well meaning, they need to be reminded from time to time that they are servants of a free and confident people, not apparatchiks of some authoritarian satrapy. I would hope they would focus their security concerns on meaningful targets, not a shadow on the façade of a medical school.

As for terrorists, they can in their impotence kill people and cause shock and mayhem, but they cannot destroy us as a nation. Only we have the power to do that if, succumbing to blind fear, we forget who we are.

09 June, 2008 12:20  

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