A small thing

vigilenceWhen I was growing up, I dreamed of visiting “red” China, the USSR, or the DDR. I’ve always paid attention to defending against the worst case. During the 1980s, like lots of kids in America, I worried about the potential for global nuclear war, and our seeming lack of preparation for it. I worried about other worst-case scenarios as well–Herbert’s White Plague felt less like fiction and more like a possibility worth guarding against, and in California, a major earthquake was always a certainty–but, as a child of the times, I worried most about what to do when the first ICBMs hit.

It might seem strange, then, that I would want to visit the other side of the iron curtain, but my greatest flaw has always been an insatiable curiosity. The stories of people visiting Moscow, Peking, or East Berlin at the time were much like those of visiting North Korea now. You should expect your hotel room to be bugged, your movements monitored. They would likely ply you with drugs and women, hoping for something you could be blackmailed with. (I suppose the potential of being plied with drugs and women might have been part of the attraction…) And should you try to go off the beaten track or photograph things you were not permitted to, you would find yourself in the gulag. Of course, much of this was romanticism, propaganda, or some combination. And like all myths, there was probably some kernel of truth.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in DC, and I don’t want to overplay this point, but as I took a handful of shots of facades, I always glanced around to make sure uniformed guards were nowhere nearby. Now, there were no signs that suggested that photography was not allowed, and these were public buildings shot from public sidewalks in the public’s capitol. I had no real fear of being dragged in for questioning (although perhaps I should have), I just wanted to avoid the uncomfortable situation of guards telling me I was not allowed to do what I was doing. It was a subtle unease, and I realized that it reminded me a lot of the way I felt it would be to visit a communist state when I was a child. The problem is that there is a new set of understandings of what should be allowed to be photographed. I would never have felt that kind of unease at a museum, because it seems it has long been the case that photography is restricted in most museums. (The Met is a refreshing exception.) But this idea of not being able to photograph public buildings in some cases, seemingly determined at the whim of the guard, is galling to me.

I think the thing that really bugs me is this idea that there is no clear rule–no sign indicating that what you are doing may get you into trouble with someone with a gun and a state license to take physical action against you. This shows up when boarding a plane as well. The fact that I can’t bring a bottle of water with me on the plane is a nuisance, not least because it seems to serve only the slimmest security function. But these regulations that are arbitrary, but clearly spelled out, are far less onerous than the seemingly capricious ways in which some of the rules are applied.

This story about someone getting stopped for his homemade MintyBoost that TSA thought looked like an IED (well, it had the I and the D parts, at least) reminded me of a run-in with airport security in Buffalo. I had a long conversation with a woman who thought it was strange that I was bringing a large electric gear-motor on a plane from Buffalo to NYC. “What’s it for?” she wanted to know. I answered honestly (aka, stupidly), “I don’t know.” I had originally picked up the motor on eBay to activate a cover over our front steps in Buffalo, which tended to get impossibly slick with snow and ice. We improvised a frame with a tarp to cover the steps, but that meant lifting up the cover whenever we arrived or departed. I wanted to automate this, using the motor to drive a winch mechanism, but never got around to it. Now, I was dragging random items from my office at UB back to Manhattan when I made the commute, and so I dropped the motor into my bag. Rather than this rather unbelievable and difficult to articulate story, I said I was a roboticist (white lie; I dabble) and it was for my work, and after running it through the ETD system and a bit of deliberation they let me on. But it was the same sort of feeling: the TSA had the ability to either seize this piece of junk or keep me from boarding the plane, and there was no exacting rule that would determine whether they would exercise that authority. This becomes especially annoying when they are clearly wrong, as when someone from the TSA in Los Angeles held me up for a twenty minutes insisting that I was flying alone, on a one-way ticket, and had open-jawed a previous flight, and found it very suspicious when I disagreed with his assessment.

In the end, it’s a small thing. I doubt most people have enough of a problem with authority to have this even bother them. The solution is easy enough–someone needs to make a cell phone with a camera in it that rivals the point-and-shoots now available. Also need to be able to redirect the lens to be able to take a shot without holding the phone up. Do this, and the enforcement issue is pretty much moot. Of course, it is not the actual rule that bothers me so much as the impulse, and the fact that it is not a problem for so many people. It also troubles me that I have the same slight prickling at the back of my neck in DC as I have had in cities that do not make the claims of freedom and liberty that the US does.

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  1. Posted 7/25/2007 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Must be an american thing. I wanted to visit Yemen :)

  2. alex
    Posted 7/25/2007 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Well, I guess I really also wanted to go to Japan :).

  3. Posted 7/25/2007 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    You wrote “I think the thing that really bugs me is this idea that there is no clear rule—no sign indicating that what you are doing may get you into trouble” .
    If you add that at times it does get you into trouble but other times it simply does not, for no apparent reason either, I will welcome you to Brazil!

  4. EWa
    Posted 7/25/2007 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure about other communist countries, but I remember that one of the favorite mischiefs in communist Poland ( BTW what is a plural of mischief ?) was to photograph yourself in front of a “Do not photograph” sign. Since they were on every bridge, train station etc., finding one was not a problem. We just had to remember to do it with a fresh roll of film, since in case you were caught, your camera would be open and the film exposed. Good old times!

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