Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recently announced a new policy of stopping people “randomly” to request identification from those whom police believe to be acting “suspiciously”; they will also be asking to check packages and bags “at random.” In New York City, meanwhile, the MTA has instituted a new policy forbidding cameras anywhere in the subway. One angry photographer protesting the ban cited a friend who was questioned by police after taking a picture of his wife near the Whitestone Bridge. Apparently in response to recent scandals, Donald Rumsfeld has issued a ban on all digital cameras, cell phones with digital cameras and camcorders from all military compounds. And on the planetary line of defense, the Pentagon, having had the foresight to purchase the right to publish satellite photographs of Earth a few years ago, has never disseminated the same–thus removing aerial photos of hotspots like Afghanistan from the public realm. Although the contracts are said to have expired, John Pike of globalsecurity.org says that imaging companies don’t want to “gratuitously annoy their biggest customer, the US military. These companies are run by businessmen, not crusading journalists.”
Down on the ground, a Pakistani immigrant was detained after he asked a stranger to snap a picture of him amid the fall foliage of upstate New York. The lovely colors were reflected in the lapping pool of a water-treatment plant; the stranger thought he might be casing the joint and called the police. At the borders, it is not only citizens of designated countries who are scrutinized and detained but also artwork, music and books. Curators, conductors and academics are frustrated in their ability to plan for conferences or shows involving work shipped from places like Cuba, Africa, the Middle East.
The flip side to all this banning and blindfolding is that the police have cameras trained on the public all over New York City. Private security firms have cameras guarding every inch of work and shopping space. Antiterrorism measures allow law enforcement to “sneak and peek” into private homes and personal computers based on the suspicions of individual officers, without judicial oversight or accountability. Not that oversight will help in a time of panic: As of this writing, an art professor at the University of Buffalo named Stephen Kurtz awaits the outcome of a grand jury investigation into his series of gallery installations protesting the genetic modification of food. When Kurtz’s wife died recently of a heart condition, the paramedic who came to his home saw petri dishes and a DNA extractor used to analyze food for possible genetic alteration. The paramedic reported him to the FBI, who confiscated the extractor, his computer and papers, as well as his wife’s body. Although nothing hazardous was found, a grand jury has been convened to consider whether he should be prosecuted under a provision of the “US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989,” a law recently expanded by the USA Patriot Act to prohibit the possession of “any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system” that has no “prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose.”
Perhaps the emergence of this lumbering Panopticon wouldn’t be quite so worrisome if we could be sure that there was equality of sneaking and peeking. Given specific events like the upcoming conventions and election, most of us might not mind if guards searched everyone who entered the subway, regardless of race, religion or rank. Since that is obviously impossible–we depend on a transit system that transports rather than grinds to a standstill–most of us also probably would accept random, truly random, searches as a more efficient deterrent. For example, we wouldn’t be so bothered if officials were stopping not just brown people “randomly” but, say, every third person through the turnstile, or everyone with a backpack–if, in other words, the winnowing were consistently neutral. But “random” is often employed as though it were synonymous with the idle suspicions of individual officers–despite history attesting to the manner in which free-floating “suspicion” is too frequently a cipher for ethnic stereotyping, racial voyeurism, unconstitutional animus.
Conducting the searches and manning the cameras are so many security guards, private contractors, prison wardens, housing police, sheriffs and regular police. A random sampling of law-enforcement personnel would no doubt reveal ordinary Americans: They pray to God, beat their spouses, pay their taxes, molest their children and love their dogs at approximately the same frequency as everyone else. Some of them are well-trained professionals, some barely more than neglected, out-of-control kids, like Lynndie England. For better or worse, they carry within them the likes, prejudices, violence and ideals of our very complex society. Some of them live next door. Some want to make sure you never get within twenty miles of their neighborhood. Some believe that you are the Antichrist. Some want to marry your daughter.
But all that personal preference and human idiosyncrasy is beside the point if they conform to reasonably clear guidelines informed by as broad a range of public input and oversight as possible. If, on the other hand, the network of information gatherers and secret surveillers is allowed to become an ever more closed society and to indulge their own prejudices and paranoia, we will see a very different, if no less human, reaction: the increased conforming of our society to the standards of sober bureaucrats, information analysts so narrowly focused as to be narrow-minded, media rumor-mills and traumatized military men. Our homes, backpacks, offices, pockets and cars will have to be suitably sanitized of books they haven’t read, of science they don’t understand, of art that unsettles them, of looks that trigger flashbacks and of ideas that are so creative as to seem foreign.
We must not cede the power to witness what is happening to us, to know how we are seen, to oversee our own representation. Without that freedom, we must recognize ourselves in the awful words spoken by the despairing family of one Iraqi man who has disappeared into US custody: “It’s because they have absolute force. No one sees what they do.”