Friday, January 20, 2012

Fist-Swinging Photographers Miss the Point

It is easy to accuse cops of bulldozing militant freelance photographers out of their civil right to snap photos of any place at any time. Call the police Gestapo. Gain a merit badge from the local ACLU advocate. Then feel good and smug about summoning common sense and popular support to this cause. It's easy, gratifying, convenient – and wrong.

Wisdom ultimately sides with law enforcement on this debate, no matter how inelegant the trek to reach this point. Why? Because the ill-considered photo of a critical infrastructure site taken by even the most innocuous, self-styled photographic artist is destined for long life and unfettered travel via the Internet. Its worst destination: a terrorist's target folder, where it serves such nefarious purposes as (1) exposing defenses or attack pathways to a worthy target, or (2) drawing attention as a potential target to attackers who had never before noticed this target.

Events occur. Conditions alter. The world changes. Weapons screening as a condition of gaining access to an airline flight that you are paying for may have been unthinkable in the 1950s. Today, it would be more unthinkable, even irresponsible, to board a flight without such screening. The events of 9/11 changed many views, even those of one of today’s critics of the cop who tries to intervene when a camera-wielding free lancer casually starts photographing critical infrastructure sites. With the memory of 9/11/01 receding, George Will now brands the police attempt at intervention an instance “of government overreaching in the name of security.” (Details are in “A snapshot of our times,” Washington Post, January 18, 2012.)

When the events of 9/11 were still fresh, though, Mr. Will offered a different opinion. Then (Washington Post of November 4, 2001) his view was

“All Americans are, potentially, intended victims of terrorism. What can they do about that? Americans who live in large cities develop a certain urban wariness -- an instinctive alertness, a set of prudential strategies for minimizing dangers. A similar heightened alertness is now a civic duty…an important component of the meaning of citizenship: Public safety is the public's business. Public authorities take the lead and some of them work at it full time. However, at all times, and especially in times like these, it is every citizen's business.”

The real debate should be how to constrain na├»ve perpetuating of vulnerabilities through unthinking proliferation of photographs that offer targeting value for terrorists. A corollary debate of equal legitimacy may be how to enable defenders to stop reckless photography without being needlessly heavy handed, or even how to craft a process to appeal abuses of legitimate photo-taking. (Some common sense and courteous interchanges between cops and photographers could solve most cases without mutual expressions of outrage.) The focus should not be on “overreach” at the expense of security. Even a hackneyed truism to the effect that one’s right to swing his fist ends where my nose begins should offer an analogy to help understand why casual photography of critical sites is not a good idea in the world we live in now.

— Nick Catrantzos