Better watch where you point that video camera

August 26, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

BEING AMONG the swarthy, I have been careful to shave when traveling, especially since September 2001. When you have dark hair and your father was from an island and, most summers, you brown up like a Jimmy Dean sausage - when you are about as far as humanly possible from looking like an Australian butterfly champion - you are self-conscious of security agents in public places.

It doesn't fill my every waking hour. But it's there.

I would never describe myself as being of "Middle Eastern descent," but I've been told I could play the part. And I have many friends of Mediterranean extraction, and a bearded cousin who looks like something out of John Ashcroft's private mug shot collection, and I know what these guys are up against, at least internally, as they travel through life in the post-9/11 era.

We live with the understanding that some day we might get a little tap on the shoulder from Big Brother.

You never know when someone in a uniform, or watching through binoculars, might regard you - or some innocent gesture you've just made - as "suspicious," and bring a little inconvenience into your life.

So we avoid things.

We don't sit in airport waiting areas, with a day's growth of beard, listening on the iPod to Syrian singer Nour Mehana's song, "Mother of a Martyr." (I've been tempted - with an eye toward column material - but I've resisted.)

I do not buy box cutters over the Internet. For the airport I dress in clothing from Bland's End.

I'm not much for videotaping bridges and dams, either.

I figure some day it will be safe to do that again. But not in the immediate post-9/11 era.

Of course, I exaggerate my paranoia a little.

I know this is no laughing matter, and that my self-consciousness is nothing compared to what must be abject fear for many Arab-Americans.

Eyes must be on those citizens constantly, and far more extensively than we probably realize or want to acknowledge. Many Arab-Americans, though completely assimilated and making huge contributions to society, have expressed fears that, as the United States became consumed with terrorist paranoia, they would suffer even more prejudice. There's no getting around it. Anyone who doesn't think the police engage in racial profiling is not paying attention in this post-9/11 American era.

It's a shame, but that's the way things are.

And, short of outrageous violations of personal liberties by law enforcement, most Americans think a little of this kind of scrutiny is OK and a lot of it might be necessary.

The other day at the Bay Bridge, police stopped Ismail Selim Elbarasse and his family on suspicion that one of them, Elbarasse's wife, was videotaping the bridge as part of surveillance for a possible terrorist attack.

Three off-duty Baltimore County cops happened to spot the woman, who appeared to be "of Middle Eastern descent," operating a video camera from a moving SUV, and they reported the activity as suspicious to their comrade cops at the bridge. Elbarasse is being held as a material witness in a separate terrorism case.

Predictably, Elbarasse's New York attorney, Stanley L. Cohen, said the family was unfairly targeted for videotaping the bridge. He claimed they were merely on a vacation, and had been down the beach.

"They ought to indict his wife for taking videos of the Grand Canyon, too," said Cohen. "If [she] were blond and blue-eyed and her name was Gigi, no one would have made a big deal out of it. It's nuts."

Cohen is right.

Nuts is the way things are in this country, in the large, murky wake of 9/11.

But whenever I hear a fellow champion of civil liberties scream about racism and prejudice in police actions aimed at investigating suspected terrorists or their sympathizers, I want to ask: What's your idea, bub?

How do you stop terrorism without stopping terrorists? How do you stop terrorists without looking for them? How do you look for them without ... looking for them?

We all know that cops, as much as they might like blondes, aren't looking for blondes.

That's not what they're getting paid to do right now, and we all know it.

Blondes aren't the prime targets of anti-terrorist investigations.

Others are, and they know who they are, and, sad as it might be, it doesn't appear the profile is going to change any time soon. So, pardon me for sounding jaded, but those who are targets - even those who only come close to looking like targets - ought to be careful about what they do with a video camera. To avoid being inconvenienced by the authorities, having your camera confiscated and your vacation ruined, maybe it's not a good idea to be putting structural elements of the Bay Bridge on video.

You want scenery? Videotape some trees. That's my suggestion.

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