Overwhelm The System
By A.D. Freudenheim  

22 May 2005


  • The young man standing in front of the Park Avenue office building, not wearing a suit but carrying a sturdy steel briefcase, looking extremely nervous, almost agitated, yet he wears no watch.
  • The woman in her mid-sixties hanging out for 20, even 30 minutes by a car – not her car – across the street from an elementary school and its neighboring park.
  • The teenager on a skateboard, cruising down the avenue but careful to slow himself and look in the passenger window of the parked cars he passes.
  • The couple, in their thirties, who drive to a seaside town and spend the weekend on the pier making charcoal drawings of the seaside, and in a small boat, out in the bay, drawing the shoreline, too.

Odd? Perhaps.

In a world full of different people, all with varying jobs, tasks, or activities to perform each day, all with their own ideas, agendas and needs, one can be witness to a great range of behavior on even the shortest trip out of the house. It is this diversity that helps give texture to our world, that makes human interaction more than just a series of static transactions – that reveals the personalities, emotions, and individual needs all of us have.

Increasingly, however, Americans are encouraged to view even the smallest amount of non-conformity as potentially threatening, not just to some personal sense of space, but as a matter of state security. This is particularly since the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001, when being alert to an enormous range of “unusual” or “suspicious” activity, references to which are plentiful indeed in governmental and non-governmental sources alike, is treated as a patriotic duty – but one with minimal definition. Google, for instance, lists more than 42,000 hits on the search terms ‘unusual suspicious activity report “law enforcement” “September 11”’, which includes links to everything from changes in banking and travel regulations[1], to health care and environmental warnings[2], and just plain ol’ “watch out for suspicious people” kinds of notices from local or regional law enforcement.[3] The campaigns for such self-policing are everywhere, from advertisements in subways and buses to posters in schools to flyers distributed at public events.

Of course, some public service reminders make sense, and certainly American should look out for themselves and each other. But how far is too far? Do any of the four examples cited at the beginning of this article constitute “suspicious” or “unusual” activities, in the legal sense of the term, the way it was intended to be construed for the purposes of law enforcement? Maybe, and maybe not. The law – or, rather, the myriad marketing campaigns about the law and our patriotic duty to watch for such activity – is largely ill-defined, and does not promote a nuanced understanding of what constitutes a true threat to national security. For instance, the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Department in New Jersey provided a PDF with recommendations on observing one’s environment, watching one’s health, and even mentions making sure computers have an up-to-date virus scanner – no doubt crucial for homeland security protection – while reminding readers that “electronic surveillance has become an important part of improving national security.”  Similarly, the Connecticut and Long Island branch of the Coast Guard list a range of activities which patriotic Americans should report, including any attempts “to gain access to waterside facilities without proper or no identification.”

Yet in the examples above, the young man arriving for his first day on the job as a computer technician at a New York City law firm might just be nervous, and lugging around a briefcase full of tools. The 60-year-old woman at the school yard may simply have walked there to pick up her grandkids after school, and leaning against the car opposite the entrance gives her the best spot to watch the door of the school. The skate-boarding teenager is doing what adolescent boys often do: checking out the stereo systems and dreaming about the cool car he wants when he’s old enough. And the couple at the seaside may not look familiar to anyone in town, but then, they shouldn’t – they’re tourists, even if their interest is in drawing their surroundings, and even if they have not asked for prior permission from law enforcement.

The ease with which one can make a case of these not-very-suspicious behaviors is, in part, why Americans have an obligation to confront the continued expansion of Federal and State law enforcement powers. We must fight back against the attempts not only to create a police state, but to make Americans complicit in that effort – in much the same way that the East German Stasi once did, or even Hoover’s FBI – through programs such as the now-defunct “Citizen Corps” and “Operation TIPS” (“Terrorism Information and Prevention System”), promoting the “I know it when I see it” type of self-policing that makes anything outside an individual’s sense of “normal” seem like a potential threat. Even if TIPS has been halted, there are efforts underway to increase the powers of the F.B.I. in a range of different areas, from circumventing judicial subpoenas to increasing their ability to read “suspicious” mail without – once again – much definition of what is suspicious, or why.[4]

There is an element of absurdist theater to all of this paranoia. What if a bunch of people get together to do something “suspicious” – say, burn a leaf with a magnifying glass and sunlight on a sidewalk in New York’s Times Square – and someone else reports them? Is the person who calls a law enforcement team committing a crime by making a false report? No; both the observer and the observed activities are real. Are the people burning the leaf endangering society, or even themselves? Probably not, aside from possible creating some congestion on the sidewalk. Is it “suspicious”? Well, that really depends on your perspective, doesn’t it? What if the same group of people performed such an act in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, instead of New York City? What if the people were using a magnifying glass to cook a fish, instead of burn a leaf?

In fact, what America almost – almost – needs is a theatrical campaign by a group with the right mind set of social awareness and political activism, to create acts of absurdist theater on a large scale, and to highlight for us how completely crazy we could become under the tutelage of a hyperactive law enforcement imagination. (A group such as The Yes Men, for instance.) A series of performances that might literally overwhelm the system with good-citizen-driven calls to the police – perhaps in a safe zone, like Montana – while revealing how people can (over)react to things that they simply do not understand.

This is not about plowshare-beating protests against nuclear weapons, good though those efforts also are. This is about reflecting back to Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, about reminding ourselves that it is easy to see demons and witches and suspicious activity everywhere, if only one looks for it. In a fast-paced, modern world, where people may have multiple roles to play in life, it is all too easy to be swayed into believing the worst – and acting on those impulses – in the most innocent of situations. If there is one behavior to which we should truly be alert, it is that one.

[1] See, for example, the Fried Frank advisory “Treasury Proposes New Suspicious Activity Reporting Rule for Broker-Dealers.”
[2] See, for example, this page listing “suspicious” or “unusual” activities from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
[3] According to Reason magazine, the Department of Homeland Security is providing local law enforcement with a guide to help identify and report such activity. See “Balance Sheet,” by Jeff A. Taylor, Reason, May 2005, P. 11.
[4] See for example “Plan Would Broaden F.B.I.'s Terror Role,” by Eric Lichtblau, The New York Times, 19 May 2005, and “Plan to Let F.B.I. Track Mail in Terrorism Inquiries,” also by Lichtblau, from the Times on 21 May 2005.
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This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.