London: photographers become terrorism suspects

Posted: March 15, 2008 in society
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After Boing Boing, Crave reported as well that London police started a five week campaign, which includes posters encouraging people to report ‘odd’ looking photographers. This is just another example for whipping up mass hysteria and fear as well as stereotyping and stigmatising groups of innocent people within the general population and sowing seeds of mistrust in the process. Even without thinking of parallels in past and present dictatorial regimes or in the McCarthy era in the US, we know what the results can be even in our society: innocent people get caught up in the net of suspicion, anxiety and uncertainty – especially as it happened in Britain to members of the Muslim community. Such effects are amplified in this case by London police not only using posters to implore people to report photographers but also to report those having multiple mobile phones or living in houses that look like suspicious activity might go on inside. It’s a worrying trend of paranoia that of course not only affects community peace but can also lead to the total misuse of power amongst members of the police force, as happened in the case of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Mendes who was brutally excecuted by London police after the London bombings.

But even apart from these excesses of state power, such campaigns have other effects too. Apparently New York City has been targeting photographers for more than five years now (even though without posters), which has led to their constant harassment by New York police. This form of discrimination is not only a nuisance but also an infringement of people’s democratic rights. And as Phil Ryan points out in his Crave post, it is ironic that the authorities chip away at democratic freedoms in the name of safeguarding our so-called democratic institutions against those who Bush  accuses of ‘hating our democracy’.

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Apart from inciting paranoid interpersonal suspicion in the community, harassing or killing innocent people, discriminating against specific population groups and infringing on constitutional or democratic rights and freedoms, the state’s strategy of creating secrecy around security is simply stupid – as Cory Doctorow’s brilliant Guardian article “Time to fight security superstition” points out. If you want security to work for people, you have to have people understanding and being involved in designing it. If you have someone, designing a security system, not offering it to broad peer review, you only get an outcome for those who are not as smart as you.

Being human, you will make mistakes – which won’t be noticed when you shroud yourself in secrecy. You also will get resistance from those who you try to protect: because they don’t understand what your systems are all about, they simply experience them as a nuisance (like when “being subjected to systematic anti-dignity depredations” at airports). People who don’t understand and feel annoyed won’t contribute to making life more secure; the only ones that might be recruited are those spreading false suspicions for purely personal or paranoia reasons.

And why would I want to trust those”experienced officers” mentioned in the poster above? After all, it was them who were responsible for the execution of Mendes or the closure of Soho when a Thai restaurant burned its chilli sauce, releasing spicy smoke! That level of incompetence does not engender trust, and neither does the ban on taking photos of security cameras when I know that the so-called terrorist can easily take a mental note on where they are located. If we want to protect democracy, we have to be democratic, and that includes transparency as well as the respect for democratic freedoms, and we have to tap into the large well of our collective smartness – rather than into the small pot of brainpower of so-called experts and their politcal masters, both of whom are often narrow-minded, ideology and power driven, and sometimes outright dumb.

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