July 17, 2004

Like the USSR in the Fifties

I don't have a camera, and I don't take pictures much. If I did, I might have taken a picture of the new WWII memorial in Washington DC. (The reviews didn't tell me that it would be a family-friendly feel-good kind of place--when I went there it was full of children and other people splashing in the pool.) Maybe it's a good thing that I didn't.

Maybe you've heard about the Nepalese illegal immigrant who was subjected to 24-hour lighting in a 6-by-9 foot cell for three months, because he unintentionally videotaped a building that contained an FBI office. But you're probably not an illegal immigrant.

You may have heard about the writer who is now on the Homeland Security watch list, because while on a plane he worked on a story containing the word "bomb" (meaning "surprise," it seems). But that's a comedy of errors.

But you might not have seen the Artist's Statement, via Michael Froomkin. An American citizen--a black photography student--takes pictures of the train bridge at the local locks, "easily my neighborhood’s most recognizable landmark and its highest point of tourism." He is surrounded by three Homeland security agents, three Seattle Police, and two security guards for the locks. Agent McNamara of Homeland Security tells him that he has broken the law by photographing federal property.

This is not just the top of a slippery slope. It's already a substantial abridgement of our rights. It seems that you can't take a picture in public, for fear that it might contain federal property. Maybe this won't always be enforced, but something that you do only at the pleasure of the local police isn't something you're free to do.

When I told my mother about this, she said, "It's like the Soviet Union in the fifties." One of her college teachers was arrested on a trip to the USSR for taking unauthorized pictures.

I don't think this is necessarily an order from on high--it's just that, as Froomkin says, "the reaction to 9/11 has given some of the worst tendencies in law enforcement an undeserved patina of legitimacy."

And I don't think the U.S. is really like the Soviet Union. I don't expect to be arrested or detained or to suffer any adverse consequences from writing this (except that some people may decide that I'm a jerk). But "better than the Soviet Union" isn't a standard to aim for. I fear that our society is getting just that bit less open, free, and democratic, and every little bit hurts.

(I hope this is the last shrill post for a while. I had actually been planning to post it since I saw the Artist's Statement, which was before a couple of things happened that made me lose my temper. Regular programming should resume soon.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 17, 2004 01:43 PM