To See or Not to See

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, June 28, 2004 | Go to article overview

To See or Not to See


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recently announced a new policy of stopping people "randomly" to request identification from those whom police believe to be acting "suspiciously"; they will also be asking to check packages and bags "at random." In New York City, meanwhile, the MTA has instituted a new policy forbidding cameras anywhere in the subway. One angry photographer protesting the ban cited a friend who was questioned by police after taking a picture of his wife near the Whitestone Bridge. Apparently in response to recent scandals, Donald Rumsfeld has issued a ban on all digital cameras, cell phones with digital cameras and camcorders from all military compounds. And on the planetary line of defense, the Pentagon, having had the foresight to purchase the right to publish satellite photographs of Earth a few years ago, has never disseminated the same--thus removing aerial photos of hotspots like Afghanistan from the public realm. Although the contracts are said to have expired, John Pike of globalsecurity.org says that imaging companies don't want to "gratuitously annoy their biggest customer, the US military. These companies are run by businessmen, not crusading journalists."

Down on the ground, a Pakistani immigrant was detained after he asked a stranger to snap a picture of him amid the fall foliage of upstate New York. The lovely colors were reflected in the lapping pool of a water-treatment plant; the stranger thought he might be casing the joint and called the police. At the borders, it is not only citizens of designated countries who are scrutinized and detained but also artwork, music and books. Curators, conductors and academics are frustrated in their ability to plan for conferences or shows involving work shipped from places like Cuba, Africa, the Middle East.

The flip side to all this banning and blindfolding is that the police have cameras trained on the public all over New York City. Private security firms have cameras guarding every inch of work and shopping space. Antiterrorism measures allow law enforcement to "sneak and peek" into private homes and personal computers based on the suspicions of individual officers, without judicial oversight or accountability. Not that oversight will help in a time of panic: As of this writing, an art professor at the University of Buffalo named Stephen Kurtz awaits the outcome of a grand jury investigation into his series of gallery installations protesting the genetic modification of food. When Kurtz's wife died recently of a heart condition, the paramedic who came to his home saw petri dishes and a DNA extractor used to analyze food for possible genetic alteration. The paramedic reported him to the FBI, who confiscated the extractor, his computer and papers, as well as his wife's body. Although nothing hazardous was found, a grand jury has been convened to consider whether he should be prosecuted under a provision of the "US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989," a law recently expanded by the USA Patriot Act to prohibit the possession of "any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system" that has no "prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose.

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