July 2004
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Day July 10, 2004

Paranoia: the first step in losing our freedom

In case anybody thinks that we’re striking the right balance between caution and civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, I urge you to read Ian Spiers’ description of his treatment in doing public photography. Ian, a Seattle resident, was photographing the Ballard Locks for a photography class at Shoreline Community College when he was interrogated by police officers, and later an agent from Homeland Security.

Seattle residents will understand that the Ballard Locks are among Seattle’s most popular tourist destinations, and are among its most photographed landmarks. Thus, a person with a camera taking pictures at the Locks is nothing very special. It appears from the police report, however, that someone living nearby called in a “suspicious person” incident to the Seattle police.

It gets worse:

I then saw a Seattle Police patrol vehicle driving on a nearby path, one that was inaccessible to the public, and parking in the hilltop parking lot. At that point, I knew what was coming. A few minutes later, I watched in dismay as eight men descended from the parking lot, down the hill, making a bee-line for me and my tripod.

One of the Seattle policemen, using his strongest, most authoritative voice, gripping his holstered sidearm, was now demanding to see my ID. I asked what this was about and why I had to show him my ID. “Look, we can do this one of two ways. You show me your ID right now! I’m not kidding!” the cop yelled.

The story goes on to include Homeland Security agents taking charge of the situation:

He went on to tell me that the minute I’d photographed federal property, citing the Ballard Locks, the train bridge, and the Patriot Act, that I’d, again, broken the law. Of course, I asked why there weren’t any signs on that parcel of public property disclosing that photography was forbidden….I knew something he didn’t know. I went on to clarify that I’d actually been to the Ballard Locks just two days earlier, where I’d met with the park ranger, specifically requesting permission to take a series of photos. We’d had a genuinely pleasant discussion about photography and the freedom of speech. In the end, he’d clarified that I had permission to take photos, just about any photos I’d like, on the city side of the Locks… which was the side I was currently on.

Spiers not only didn’t commit any crime or break a rule, he had permission beforehand! Despite this, EIGHT police, Locks security, and Homeland Security agents needed to investigate…why?

The “why” of incidents like this is important, and needs discussion. It would be easy to trivialize incidents like this, since nobody was arrested. The police and Homeland Security will undoubtedly claim that no harm was done. But I doubt Spiers would agree.

Are we investigating amateur photographers at public landmarks because there is a real security threat? Possibly, but if that’s the case, shouldn’t we consider whether there is a better way to handle it? And if we’re concerned about information leaking to terrorists, shouldn’t we be concerned with all sources of information? Perhaps we should be concerned that Googling “Ballard Locks bridge photo” returns as the first link SeattlePhotographs.com, a provider of stock photography including 5 detailed photographs of the train bridge and 18 photographs of the locks and lock mechanisms themselves? Try it yourself.

The tradeoff between civil liberties and security is a difficult one. Do we need to curtail certain civil liberties (or worse, civil rights), in order to be secure? This question is being debated by the best legal minds of our generation, with no consensus. I strongly doubt it, but I don’t pretend to have the answer.

But I do know one thing.

It’s not worth giving up freedom for just an appearance of security.

Read Ian Spiers’ story, and then pass it along to your Congressperson. Especially if your Congressperson voted on Thursday to keep the Patriot Act intact.