Tue, Jun 10, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Photography is a security threat only in movies


Photographers: Just what’s the problem with them these days? Are they really all terrorists, or does everyone just think they are? Since Sept. 11, there has been an increasing war on photography. Photographers have been harassed, questioned, detained, arrested or worse, and declared to be unwelcome. We’ve been repeatedly told to watch out for photographers, especially suspicious ones.

Clearly any terrorist is first going to photograph his target, so vigilance is required.

Except that it’s nonsense. The Sept. 11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found among the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The Irish Republican Army wasn’t known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about: the Fort Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami Seven, the Lackawanna Six? No photography.

Given that terrorists don’t seem to photograph anything, why is it such pervasive conventional wisdom that they photograph their targets? Because it’s a movie-plot threat. A movie-plot threat is a specific threat, vivid in our minds like a film plot. You remember them from the months after the Sept. 11 attacks: anthrax spread from crop dusters, a contaminated milk supply, terrorist scuba divers armed with almanacs.

Our imaginations run wild with detailed and specific threats, from the news, films and documentaries. And many of us get scared. Terrorists taking pictures is an essential detail in any good movie. Of course it makes sense that terrorists will take pictures of their targets. They have to do reconnaissance, don’t they? We need 45 minutes of television action before the actual terrorist attack — 90 minutes if it’s a movie — and a photography scene is just perfect.

The problem with movie-plot security is it only works if we guess the plot correctly. If we spend a zillion bucks defending Wimbledon and terrorists blow up a different sporting event, that’s money wasted. If we post guards all over the subway and terrorists bomb a crowded shopping area, that’s also a waste. If we teach everyone to be alert for photographers, and terrorists don’t take photographs, we’ve taught people to fear something they shouldn’t.

Even if terrorists did photograph their targets, the maths don’t make sense. Billions of photographs are taken every year, 50 billion by amateurs alone in the US. And the national monuments you imagine terrorists taking photographs of are the same ones tourists like to take pictures of. If you see someone taking one of those photographs, the odds are infinitesimal that he or she is a terrorist. But because we’re a species of storytellers, we find movie-plot threats compelling. A single vivid scenario will do more to convince people that photographers might be terrorists than all the data I can muster to demonstrate that they’re not.

Fear aside, there aren’t many legal restrictions on what you can photograph from a public place that’s already in public view. If you’re harassed, it’s almost certainly a law-enforcement official, public or private, acting way beyond his or her authority. There’s nothing in any post-Sept. 11 law that restricts your right to photograph.

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