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Tourists not welcome

2004.08.26 — Culture | Postcards | Travel | Terrorism | by Derek Jensen

PATH subway tunnel

National security threat? (hi res)
[all photos Tysto exclusive]

I was threatened with arrest last night on the train from the World Trade Center station to Jersey City. As I always do in my travels, I was carrying a camera and, in this case, photographing out the front car of the train. The conductor slipped up behind me and asked me if I wanted "to get locked up." Now, there was no reason to imagine I was anything but a tourist. He could have politely announced that photography is now against the PATH rules of conduct for security reasons; instead, he screwed on his jackass hat and treated me like a panhandler.

I looked up the rules on the PATH website, but couldn't find the reference (it's there, buried among the other activities people do anyway). So I called the "suspicious activity" hotline, which at midnight is helmed by boredest cops you're ever likely to encounter. The second cop I talked to pointed out that there are "people who want to put bombs on trains." Fair enough, but I wasn't putting a bomb on the train, and it's unclear how taking pictures would really help someone do that. It doesn't take too much advance planning to say, "Hey, let's carry a bomb onto a train."

Woolworth Building

Soon to be illegal? (hi res)

I'm as aware of the terror threat as anyone, but I'm also an avid photographer, like millions of other Americans. There are no signs in the station or on the trains saying that photography is now banned; it would probably be too embarrassing for the Port Authority to blatantly announce that tourists just aren't welcome here anymore. It's certainly pissed off photographers.

I don't care that terrorists may have taken photos of their targets. They also rent trucks, drive around city streets, visit strip bars, and drink coffee. Aside from the sad irony of outlawing harmless activities in public places, we can't make things illegal just because terrorists do them.

Caffe Napoli in Little Italy

Lovely... and a soft target. (hi res)

All kinds of people take pictures wherever they travel, and many of them come to the New York/New Jersey area. By cracking down on the "danger" of photography, the Port Authority is showing its panties. It's the most unimaginative and cowardly way to deal with a perceived threat.

How much value are photos of public places anyway? Are they that much better than diagrams, personal observations, and freely available public records? Can you stop a terrorist attack by keeping them from taking photographs? It's ridiculous.

So what if it's against the law to take pictures of high-value terrorist targets? Terrorists don't care about laws. Laws only stop law-abiding citizens. So, while chemical plants, shopping malls, and other high-value targets are open and vulnerable, ordinary citizens can no longer carry harmless pocket knives or take tourist snapshots of metropolitan areas. Good trade? Nope.

Ferraro's desserts

The scene of my surveillance earlier that evening: Ferarro's dessert bar. (hi res)

I'm not one of those nutters who think that we need to armor our airports against the possibility of a terrorist shooting down an airplane with a surface-to-air missile. If a terrorist gets a surface-to-air missile into America, it's too late. He's going to blow something up, and there's no way we can stop him. School buses and movie theaters have as many people in them as airplanes.

 

Instead, we need to defend against basically two threats:

Ferraro's desserts

More delicious evidence against me.
(hi res)

1. A person with a small bomb getting it into a densely-packed public space or hazardous-material area. All it takes to minimize this risk (you can never eliminate it) is metal detectors (and/or x-ray machines) and bomb-sniffing dogs. They should be everywhere there are large numbers of people: airports, sports arenas, chemical plants, even large shopping malls.

2. A person driving a vehicle bomb into a densely-packed public space or hazardous-material area. All it takes to minimize this risk (again, you can never eliminate it) is crash barriers and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Nearly every other sort of threat can only be dealt with practically by putting posting a cop with a gun who can react to an attack immediately and possibly stop it. The truth is, there is no such thing as real safety against people who are willing to kill civilians—and possibly themselves—in order to make a socio-political statement.

 

More photos of Manhattan....

 

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