Tuesday, November 6, 2007

From The Land of the Brave To A Nation of Bedwetters

My buddy Sully links to this article about a tourist's run-in with security conscious officials. At the outset, I want to add the same caveat I suggested in the case of the Jena 6 when I first began to read about the case. It is possible that this story is a hoax, or that it's been exaggerated, or that salient facts have been omitted. Of course it would be a good idea to have independent verification, to hear more accounts, to know more facts.

Still, assuming the article is accurate, it's a horrible story: an elderly Japanese tourist who speaks no English is riding an Amtrak train from New York to Boston. He rides along, threatens or bothers nobody, and then does the unforgivable: he starts to take pictures. Well, we can't have that, can we? Sensing danger, the heroic Amtrak conductor swings into action:

The train is a half hour west of New Haven when the conductor, having finished her original rounds, reappears. She moves down the aisle, looks, stops between our seats, faces the person taking pictures. “Sir, in the interest of national security, we do not allow pictures to be taken of or from this train.” He starts, “I…….” but, without English, his response trails off into silence. The conductor, speaking louder, forcefully: “Sir, I will confiscate that camera if you don’t put it away.” Again, little response. “Sir, this is a security matter! We cannot allow pictures.” She turns away abruptly and, as she moves down the aisle, calls over her shoulder, in a very loud voice, “Put. It. Away!” He packs his camera.

And it gets worse! When the train arrives in New Haven, two police officers enter the train and remove him, apparently because he "refused" an order he couldn't understand. Hopefully these dim bulbs managed to find somebody who spoke Japanese, determine that he wasn't a terrorist, and send him on his way.

I got in a bit of trouble in the comments a while back when I said that some (though not all) TSA screeners were morons, and I suppose that I may offend an Amtrak employee here, but I don't really care. I don't know whether the "policy" against photography from speeding trains is an actual Amtrak rule, or merely a policy put in place by an idiosyncratic conductor on a power trip. I suppose the theory behind it is that terrorists could scout locations for attacks from the train and use photographs in their planning.

But this is utterly idiotic. What are the chances that terrorists would actually scout locations and take photographs from a speeding train? Wouldn't they be far more likely to get off the train and take pictures of their targets? And how many terrorists use photographs anyway? This policy is beyond stupid. It has no possible intelligent defense.

As to this conductor, if the policy is a real policy rather than simply her own personal policy, then she may not have had any choice but to enforce it. However, even if she had no choice, she didn't have to be an asshole about it. She didn't have to call the cops on a guy who obviously didn't speak English and who represented no threat. She didn't have to go into that whole "this is a security matter!" act. She could have been nice about the whole thing.

I know nothing about this woman, or her life. Maybe she is just somebody who hates her job and takes it out on the passengers, whom she resents. Maybe she's just a small person who gets to feel big by pushing people around. But one of the worst aspects of the War On Terror and the security theater it has engendered is that it gives uniformed bullies a chance to throw their weight around. When we give petty officials the power to enforce arbitrary and stupid rules, it is hardly surprising that many of them become abusive.

I sometimes think that our friends on the left get overwrought, and maybe I am a bit overwrought myself, but I have to ask: what kind of a people have we become? What kind of country is this? Is this the America we want to live in? Do we have to be afraid all the time, so afraid that we put in place stupid security measures against phantom dangers?

Let me make a radical suggestion: let's stop being afraid. The object of terrorism, after all, is to inspire fear. I am fine with putting in place reasonable precautions, with hunting down the folks behind attacks on the United States and killing them. But we can't sacrifice what we are as a country. This constant, unreasoning, debilitating official paranoia just has to go.

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