Continuing Battles in the War on the Unexpected

A suitcase in New Zealand.

An American photographing all 50 state capitols.

Maybe this would be a good idea.

Posted on January 25, 2008 at 6:03 AM • 35 Comments

Comments

bobJanuary 25, 2008 6:59 AM

He added, “We don’t normally respond or comment on any sort of leads we’ve conducted with the Joint Terrorism Task Force.��?

Yeah I wouldn't respond to questions either if I was pissing away taxpayer dollars with both hands.

Its the US; back when I took civics in High School you were innocent until proven guilty. But that was prior to 1984.

@juju: an inability to sit and do nothing?

Andy WillinghamJanuary 25, 2008 7:02 AM

It's gotten ridiculous that we can't live our lives without either being in fear of others or being feared by others. I imagine that if we did have to pay to file a complaint there would be a lot fewer complaints filed.

PavelJanuary 25, 2008 8:11 AM

I think these occurences will continue until someone, somehow, files a lawsuit for harassment (or something similar), and wins it in a Big Way (tm).

As has been pointed out by many on this site, there is no penalty for CYA-ism, in fact, it is encouraged, at the cost of false positives, et cetera.

AlanJanuary 25, 2008 8:12 AM

An Indiana friend of mine just relayed his disquieting story of being jailed and interrogated for nearly three days because he failed to show up for a second court hearing Re: his farm dog that nipped a passing jogger not being immunized. This when the court could not tell him when his second appearance was scheduled -- so he waited for them to contact him, which they did by slapping handcuffs on him at work one day.

Because he has Asperger's, he did not do well in answering their questions and ended up in a padded cell (which he said was nice because of the privacy!). Perhaps they thought he was suspicious because he grew up in Africa as a missionary's kid.

This willingness to see "terrorists" under every cloud and treating people as guilty until proved innocent is becoming more and more pernicious -- or is it just being reported more often?

sceptic_January 25, 2008 8:18 AM

@js: what was suspicious? The color of the man's skin. Remember, this is the new Home of the Free - where you're guaranteed freedom, as long as you're white.

SteveJJanuary 25, 2008 8:20 AM

> A suitcase in New Zealand.

In the UK, on public transport at least, for as long as I remember (and I started regularly using the train in 1989), people are regularly reminded not to leave luggage unattended. And that unattended items may be removed and destroyed. This is because in the 80's, the IRA used to leave bombs in bags at stations.

And also, I suspect, because it reduces the amount of paperwork that station staff have to do on account of stolen luggage.

If people know not to just leave stuff lying around, then it's more reasonable to react to an unattended suitcase than it would be were that an everyday occurrence, because the probability of the suitcase being dangerous is higher.

Ed T.January 25, 2008 8:23 AM

"His thoughtlessness caused considerable disruption and inconvenience to a number of people,'' [police sergeant] Scott said.

As did YOURS, Sergeant.

Pot. Kettle. Black.

Oh, and btw at one time I had a plan to photograph all 50 state capitol buildings. Glad I decided not to do that!

~EdT.

ShriJanuary 25, 2008 8:51 AM

@SteveJ -
If I were a terrorist, I don't think I'd select the maternity ward of a local hospital as my target. I'd go for something more visible, more prominent, more crowded - like the train stations you mention as an IRA favorite.

@EdT -
I, too, wanted to visit and photograph all 50 state capitol buildings. I'm very sympathetic to someone who might do that. In 1989, I visited the Soviet Union (CIS) as a tourist. On that trip, I was quite aware of train stations, bridges, airports, factories, and other "strategic" buildings. It would not have been a pleasant experience to be caught photographing such structures, even by accident.

-shri

usuallypostswithanameJanuary 25, 2008 9:01 AM

I guess I shouldn't tell anybody that my spouse's aunt, a retired schoolteacher, has visited 48 of 50 states and that we're making plans to take her to Hawaii. That NYTimes story is funny, but it's also a glimpse of pure evil.

DaveJanuary 25, 2008 9:25 AM

How is it "thoughtless" to leave an inanimate object lying around ? The article even states that he "decided it was a safe place to leave it" which indicates that he actually DID think about it.

We are surrounded by inanimate objects all the time. If I leave a laptop on my desk, I get in trouble for not locking it up... but no one evacuates the building. If I leave my bin in the middle of the walkway, I get in trouble for that... but no one evacuates the building.

If I leave my backpack, suitcase or briefcase unattended, people panic and think it's a bomb.

There are two lessons to be learned. The general populace should learn not to be terrorised. The terrorists, however, will learn not to put bombs in objects that people find suspicious.

derfJanuary 25, 2008 9:47 AM

The following announcement has been approved by the US Department of Homeland security and blessed by the Transportation security Administration:

Due to the nature of current journalistic and police investigative techniques (doubly so in Boston), if you see an unattended briefcase or backpack, an inexplicable LED light (especially if it's, God forbid, blinking), a package or box that sounds like it's ticking and/or has wires sticking out, red cylinders marked "dynamite" (pronounced "deenameetay"), or clay colored bricks marked "C4" or possibly "C5", please make sure to yell in your loudest voice "EVERYBODY PANIC!", then run around in circles like a chicken with its head cut off while frantically waving your hands in the air and dialing 911. Sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you, have a nice day.

John RidleyJanuary 25, 2008 9:59 AM

"Looking back on his travels, Mr. Fazel said: “Notwithstanding the intense scrutiny, the trip was a positive experience. I’m neither rancorous, nor do I feel offended.��?"

I'm a white american, born here, have never left it except for fishing trips to Canada when I was a kid. And **I** am offended by what's happened to him.

But then again, I've been pretty offended by pretty much everything that the "War On Terror" has brought about. For that matter, any time the government declares "War On (some thing rather than some place)" I have come to expect idiocy and obnoxious, possibly illegal behavior to start coming out of government officials.

John RidleyJanuary 25, 2008 10:03 AM

@Dave: the problem is, I can't think of a single object that someone wouldn't find suspicious these days. I bet in Boston they'd call the bomb squad for a pile of sand or a rock.

FPJanuary 25, 2008 10:15 AM

@js: "what exactly was suspicious?"

Any attempt to exercise your rights is suspicious these days, because it must mean that you are secretly planning something bigger.

Today's concerned citizens are tomorrow's peaceful protesters are the day after tomorrow's commies are next week's terrorists. Stop them before it's too late!

BetaJanuary 25, 2008 10:46 AM

This is absolutely sickening. I don't have room to comment on every point, but here are two that caught my eye:

"...when the officers determined that nothing was amiss, Mr. Fazel was ordered to leave the parking lot and continue down the road."

Why? Because if they didn't push him around a little, he'd be innocent and they'd be wrong. The kindest word I can use to describe this kind of thinking is "primitive".

"After a four-hour encounter... he was released without being charged. But he was also warned by an F.B.I. official that he was now in the system and would have troubles if he continued his trip."

Not one agent had the courage to strike his name from "the system" or add a note saying "I checked him out and he's clean". Once again, they'd rather he be vaguely dirty so that they can be right.

As an American I am absolutely disgusted. Will someone please direct me to a news story about the opposite? About an official showing courage and integrity and good judgement and a respect for human dignity? About a legislator striking down a security measure because it makes no sense and violates peoples' rights? Anybody?

Dream WorldJanuary 25, 2008 11:28 AM

@Beta

"Will someone please direct me to a news story ... About a legislator striking down a security measure because it makes no sense and violates peoples' rights?"

You're living in a dream world, Beta. Where have you been for the last 75 years? The purpose of American law is to keep as many people as possible in constant 'violation' of as many laws as possible, so that you may be detained if those in charge see a need for it. (In the mean time, they will 'let you slide.'

With hundreds of thousands of regulations and statutes, from unelected local, state, district, and federal sources, there's not a lawyer in existence who would put his license on the line in telling you, definitively with no doubt, that you're not living in violation of some form of law.

The ironic part is you voted for it, and now you complain about it.

Welcome to the world you created. It's called the law of unintended consequences.

FNORDJanuary 25, 2008 11:59 AM

"I can tell by looking at you that you’re not from Fort Wayne"?!

WTF? The US is a multiracial community now, you know. How much more racist stupidity can you show?

Rob RJanuary 25, 2008 12:45 PM

Mr. Fazel has brown skin and a name that sounds like he's from the Middle East. That's why law enforcement is suspicious. It's simple bigotry.

partdavidJanuary 25, 2008 12:48 PM

@Beta: "Will someone please direct me to a news story about the opposite?"

As a society, we are not grown-up enough to accept the risks of reasonable behavior. Applying common sense in the absence of fear-mongering, we can realize that most of the time, what you should do with an "unattended package" is look in it, see who it belongs to, and put it in the Lost and Found.

But we can't accept the risk that some tiny fraction of the time, it might actually be a bomb. Every one of those officers who stopped Fazel is having visions in his mind of the "headlines": "U.S. Capitol Bomber Released Obvious Iranian Prior to Attack" and, because of our media's and politician's repetitious imaginings of sensational threats, this actually seems like a reasonable outcome; rather than "Local Sherriff Loses Job Over Harrassment Of Tourist".

We need to have the maturity to accept negligible risks, and recognize them as negligible. And to understand that even negligible risks come to fruition some of the time, and that has to be okay, in order to lead any kind of reasonable life in a reasonable and free society.

CyberSerfJanuary 25, 2008 3:11 PM

Here in the UK the USA have been running a series of adverts for tourism, directing you to visit the "DiscoverAmerica.com" website and every time I see the advert I think, Hell will freeze over first before I set foot in the USA now.

I'm tempted to gather these links up and send them an email telling them exactly why me, my family and friends will never set foot in the USA as long as your officials keep behaving like imbeceils.

There are too many other nice places to go where I won't be fingerprinted on entry like a common criminal and where if it does start going wrong I won't be clapped in irons and treated like a mass murderer.

GeorgeJanuary 25, 2008 3:23 PM

@Beta: Not one agent had the courage to strike his name from "the system" or add a note saying "I checked him out and he's clean". Once again, they'd rather he be vaguely dirty so that they can be right.

No agent has any incentive or derives any career benefit from removing names from "terrorist" lists (especially since their bosses are most likely accountable for adding monthly quotas of names). And if any agent decided to remove a name of someone who later turned out to be a terrorist, that agent would surely become the scapegoat for the entire failed system. The risk of that is simply too great to allow any such "courage."

It is infinitely preferable for any people identified even erroneously as "suspicious" to remain on the list and be subject to continual harassment (or worse) for the rest of their lives. Since it's impossible to prove that anyone is completely innocent of evil intent, having a few "suspicious" people subject to continual surveillance and interrogation is a small price that's well worth paying to protect the Homeland.

Rather than being offended, any true freedom-loving patriotic American should be glad that our law enforcement agents are doing everything possible to keep our precious children safe, secure, and free.

Nomen PublicusJanuary 25, 2008 4:17 PM

Adam Curry (who used to be a MTV VJ and is quite well known in podcasting circles) is an American who lives in England. His businesses employ people in the UK, US and quite probably other countries.

Every time he flys into the US, he is given "special processing" for some unknown reason. Apparently nobody involved can (or is willing) explain why this occurs, nor can they provide him with a means to discover what list he is on or what to do to get off the list.

It has got to the point where he knows the procedure as well as the people implementing the procedure and the security people recognise him, but are unable to bypass the procedure even when they know it is a waste of time.

Not so much "security theatre" as "cargo cult security".

elizillaJanuary 25, 2008 4:27 PM

In September of 2000, I rode in a motorcycle rally called the Glow In The Dark Rally. It was a blast. We started from a hotel in the Chicago 'burbs, and we had 24 hours to travel to a bunch of locations and collect items. Basically a themed scavenger hunt, the theme being "Glow In The Dark". The biggest point value item on the list? Take a picture of yourself and your motorcycle, in front of each of the seven nuclear power plants in Illinois.

It makes me sad to think that no one would dare to do this today.

jack c liptonJanuary 25, 2008 6:49 PM

@Beta...

Realize that "keeping a file" is a way to show a larger and larger case-load to justify more and more funding to "pay attention" to said case-load.

This is why DYFS/CFS/(whatever the "child protection entity is named) organizations will seldom, if ever, take someone who has been accused off their list (unless they are deceased... and maybe not even then) in order to justify their place at the public trough. (This is not to say they are unworthy but they are already supralegal entites that are still, despite the funding, under-staffed. Where, oh where, is the money going?)

The point if that "suspicious" is being pushed in the direction of "non-conforming", be it racially, ethnically, religiously, behaviorally... and so on. Why do you think Apple had to withdraw their "Think Different" campaign? :-)

KellyJanuary 25, 2008 7:46 PM

I'm wondering what it takes to get someone added to "the list". Can just anyone report someone as being suspicious, or is it only white women that can do that? Can senior citizens report people? I demand Equal Opportunity For Busybodies!

unaryJanuary 25, 2008 8:27 PM

let me state from the outset i don't like guns. here in australia, we generally don't like guns... i mean, we like guns enough to shoot kangaroos and road signs, but generally speaking it's seen as somewhat barbaric and unsafe to have lots of guns in society.

i do understand america loves it's guns, i mean this post, although not intended as flamebait will have at least one response with all the reasons i am wrong.

what i don't understand is this: by birthright of being a citizen, and under obligation to society the right to carry arms is there, in my understanding, so when your government - or a foriegn power acting as a government - does bad and wrong, lies, manipulates and generally tries to stop you being free and fair, you have the means to stand up to them as a militia. now, again, i don't dig on shooting people ever, but have you thought about using this right in it's intent, rather than an excuse to just have guns? a chance to prove the validity of your preaching?

i am joking, btw...sorta... :)

fooJanuary 25, 2008 11:52 PM

John Ryder,

(sarcasm warning)


Offended or not.

The guy is smart and does realize he is now and until he dies a second class citizen, and as such it is better to happily accept the small inconveniences of being targeted and interrogated and harrased every once in a while when he goes somewhere.

I am sure he realizes that any critisism or complaints would only make things worse.
There are a lot worse things that can happen to troublemakers than just being a harassed second class citizen.


People in east-germany that were inconvenienced when being targeted and harassed by authorities also know that publicly complaining would never lead to a happy outcome.

AnonymousJanuary 26, 2008 12:40 AM

Concerning Ramak Fazel's harrasment during his photography project: you should be aware that rumour on various professional photography blogs is that it was a publicity stunt designed to promote his photographic project (which is a commercial project that was floundering at the time, having gone well over its sponsor's budget.) The rumour is, he went out of his way to deliberately provoke law enforcement reaction, and then fibbed sightly about his role in order to spin the story for public sympathy.

I have no idea if there are any grounds to these rumours or not, but then again there is not a lot of supporting evidence for his version. Also his claim about how he discovered that he was "fingered" by the woman he chatted with on a plane trip, seems rather unlikely to be true. (He claims that a state trooper showed him an intelligence bulletin on him, complete with a verbatim transcript of the conversation.)

The NY Times covered Mr. Fazel's story, in detail, but (although they were able to confirm that he had been questioned by police more than once) they were unable to locate supporting evidence for any of the specific events they investigated. Mr. Fazel was briefly detained after visiting the State Capitol in Austin, TX, but that was partly because someone phoned in an anonymous bomb threat shortly after he left the building. (Curiously, this detail is included in Italian press reports, but omitted from all the US ones I have seen.)

By the way, being of Persian descent, he is not "brown skinned", or at least no more slightly tanned than any other Italian resident.

fooJanuary 26, 2008 1:25 AM

Anonymous,

The point is not really whether or not it did happen to the guy or not.


The point is that only 10 years ago if such a story was published people would just laugh and say; "That is ridiculous. That cant happen in the land of the free! Maybe in east-germany but not here."

Today, society would find this kind of thing happening perfectly plausible. And worse, acceptable.

wrsJanuary 27, 2008 10:58 AM

@Andy Willingham:

In Germany, that's what got applied: put charges on complaints, sort of.

If you get unemployed over here, for a while you get funding by the unemployment insurance. Say twelve or eighteen or whatever number of months. If you're qualified for jobs where there's really no demand - like coal miners, you're stuck, and drift into charity after unemployment insurance funding.

Unemployed and especially people depending on the charity, in Germany increasingly get stigmatized. Also, they're a good target to put "security measurements" onto, like sending over an official inspector over to their homes (which charity is in fact entitled to do!) or debating aloud over whether unemployed should get that GPS-trackable foot cuffs on.

Obviously, these people have barely a lobby. And charity apparently is practising upon that. So there are lots of reasons to complain about the officials' in charge behaviour and orders. Although there's a risk to go to court over such cases, the courts are booked out already, things get decided years from the original complaint. So, the only way to refuse charity orders is to compain,... err, was to complain.

Instead of putting a fee on the complaints, someone decided to nullify all the complaints, independent of whether they were eligible or not. So, as people fear the way to go to court, now they're effectively at the mercy of the respective official in charge. No way to exercise your citizens rights.

So, what I want to say by this is: Before you suggest to put a fee on complaints, please consider, it might swing back.

JamieFebruary 3, 2008 2:51 PM

I'm really surprised at the New Zealand article. I'm a New Zealander, and we generally don't have that sort of paranoid thinking around here.

What I did find slightly amusing is that the incident occurred in Westport. The town's population is only about 3500, and is in a region with a total population of around 32000.

Why would anyone bother trying to set a bomb in such a small place? What possible goal could they achieve?

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..