The New York Times tells us of photographer Ramak Fazel
He also exuded the weariness of a frequent flier, having arrived the afternoon before at Newark Liberty Airport, where he was delayed for nearly three hours while United States Customs and Border Protection agents questioned him about the purpose of his trip, searched his baggage and photocopied the pages of his personal agenda.
That routine is something that Mr. Fazel, a 42-year-old freelance photographer who lives in Milan, Italy, has come to know well, and he takes pains to come across as favorably as possible. For starters, he makes sure his face is always immaculately cleanshaven.
“I have become the poster boy for Gillette,” he said, somewhat ruefully.
Shaving was one of the last things on Mr. Fazel’s mind when, on Aug. 7, 2006, he set out on a photographic and philatelic odyssey from his mother’s home in Fort Wayne, Ind. His mission was to photograph each of the nation’s 50 state capitol buildings and dispatch a postcard from each city, using postage stamps from a childhood collection. Each postcard would be mailed to the next state on his journey, where he would pick it up, continuing until he had gone full circle back to Indiana.
But there was a problem. On a flight from Sacramento, Calif., to Honolulu, Mr. Fazel described his project to a fellow passenger. He later discovered that she had reported him as suspicious — perhaps to the pilot or the Transportation Security Administration — and taken a picture of him as he slept.
Maybe it was because he was vaguely foreign looking, he reasoned, and his photographic endeavor seemed menacing in a post-9/11 landscape. He also had a three-day growth of beard, he recalled. And, although Mr. Fazel grew up mostly in the United States and is an American citizen, there was his Iranian name.
Now, we have no idea why the passenger considered him “suspicious”. Nor do we really know that her report was the sole cause for Mr Fazel’s travel problems now. What we do know is that since then, he’s been delayed and questioned, and is on a “list”. Mr Fazel “believes it has prevented him from receiving a visa to India and caused him be questioned at the border of Poland,” and that it has resulted in his being “interrogated the last four times he has entered the United States.”
He also started having trouble on his photography trip, and began to be denied entrance to the state capitol buildings that he visited. He did, though, get all of his photographs (all states except Alaska, which he didn’t visit because he ran out of money).
The journey ultimately left him wondering what it means to be American — and, more fundamentally, who he really was.
“What I thought would be an exercise in self-betterment turned out to be something a little bigger,” he said dryly.
Mr Fazel’s story points out a few things about where we are now. We’re unduly suspicious, for one thing. It’s not hard to satisfy oneself that a photographer/artist is harmless. It’s not hard to determine that a U.S. citizen is behaving in a reasonable way and is not a threat. And as long as authorities were obviously passing information from one stop to the next, it would not have been hard to pass calming information, rather than inflammatory suggestions. And yet we seem to want to pass the latter, beyond all sensibility.
It also points out what happens when we ask people to “report suspicious activity.” I don’t know what activity is “suspicious”; do you? To some, speaking a foreign language is suspicious. To some, counting on a mechanical counter is suspicious. To some, anything with Arabic writing is suspicious. And to some, as to the woman on the plane, taking photographs is suspicious. Especially if you look foreign. Especially if you look middle-eastern. Especially....
New York City’s Metro Transit Authority set up a sloan for these denunciations: “If you see something, say something.” Another recent Times article reports on the MTA program. Not surprisingly, no terrorists were caught, nor any terrorist threats uncovered, as a result of it. Also not surprisingly, there were lots of false “tips”.
Turning citizens against each other is no way to establish a “safe” society. Quite the opposite: if we can’t trust your neighbours, we can’t live free lives. Denunciations have been used by every repressive regime, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazis, the Communists in the Soviet Union and China, and every other tyranny in modern times.
And by us, too? So it seems.