Chronicles of a Paranoid Nation: The Deciduous-Infrastructure Factor

(Please see updates below.) David Hobby, the photographer who runs the popular Strobist site and photostream, has a sobering account today of how he got in trouble with the police for taking this picture of a tree.


Sample of what he describes:

'If You See Something, Say Something'
That's the slogan. But it is, of course, overly broad and simplistic. Which means that your average mouth breather can interpret it however he or she wants. And the einstein who reported me as a "suspicious person" called me in while I was making this benign photo as part of a multimedia time-lapse on autumn:

I was called in as, and I quote, "Somebody suspicious and lots of flashes of light going off."

At least that is how the cop described it when she pulled up to me, bubble gum lights blazing, to ask me what I was doing. And anyone who knows me knows that my immediate reaction was to resort to humor laced with sarcasm.

"Well, I am either a photographer taking an innocuous photo of a maple tree," I said, "or I'm al Qaida, casing our critical deciduous infrastructure."

This did not go over well.

Meta-point reminder: the challenge in dealing with any threat, from international terrorism to domestic crime to infectious diseases to mayhem of any sort, is to maintain a balance between the steps you take in the name of security, and the steps you deliberately don't take, in the name of preserving liberty and some kind of normal unmonitored life. Over the past ten years, "security" measures have too often worked like a ratchet, being added in the name of thwarting some new threat ("no liquids or gels") and very rarely being removed. As a matter of practical politics, this is easy to understand. A politician runs practically zero risk in urging new "protective" measures, but faces tremendous risk in urging that we lighten up (since the politician will be blamed for whatever accident / crime / attack later occurs).

Thus it's worth continuing pressure against further movement of the ratchet. American society is becoming steadily more policed, monitored, and suspicious, which will continue unless we resist. Thanks to JZ for the tip.
Update 1: As Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko point out in a Foreign Affairs article "Clear and Present Safety," the United States is in fact less threatened by enemies foreign and domestic than it has been in a long time, and certainly less than much political rhetoric suggests.

Update 2: As Michael Ham points out on his "Later On" site, the latest horrific schoolyard shooting, today's in Ohio, is somehow exempted from the category of "threat" that urgent action is required to prevent. As he says:

The slightest effort to make firearms less readily accessible--particularly to those we least want to get them--is shot down (as it were) by the National Rifle Association and their paid Congressional hirelings.

Does anyone else find this juxtaposition odd? Timorous about flying, but willing to be shot to death in malls and schools. Strangely fearful on the one hand, fatalistically accepting frequent stupid deaths on the other. Going to any lengths--regardless of privacy, humiliation, intrusive searches--when around airplanes, but rejecting any hint of control of firearms.
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

From This Author

Just In