Tuesday, 20 December 2011

State of Security

Azrieli Shopping Mall

What is wrong with the above picture?
At first sight I would say it’s a plain boring photo. However, there is a good reason for me taking it during my September visit to Israel. The photo was taken at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli shopping mall, where we intended to go up to the 49th story observatory to review Tel Aviv from up above, entertain our four year old, and enjoy some cool air-conditioned air.
Upon entering the shopping mall’s parking lot we were stopped by a security person. It’s standard practice in Israel: she had my father open the trunk, looked around it, scanned the car’s occupants, and then – in atypical fashion even for Israel – started asking us questions. Questions about the purpose of our visit and our intentions.
We were puzzled at first, but soon enough the focus of the security guard’s attention became clear: the digital SLR camera I was carrying with me. At first I assumed the problem is to do with the neighboring army base, the Kirya, home of the Israeli army’s headquarters; you're not supposed to take photos of army bases. It turned out to be a different problem: we were told we are not allowed to take photos inside the shopping mall. Eventually, the guard let us in after we clarified we only intend to take photos at the observatory, while promising not to take photos at the shopping mall below.
At this point you’ll have to excuse me. What the fuck!? Why are we going through the third degree in order to enter a fucking shopping mall, and all just for the sin of carrying a camera with us, when virtually everyone entering the shopping mall does so armed with a camera on their mobile phone? Where is the sense in that?
In rebellion, I did take a photo inside the shopping center. It’s the above photo, which I dedicated to the State of Israel and the security centered people dominating that country.
A few days ago I received feedback on the photo, asking me why I don’t pick on Melbourne’s drunkenness instead. I’m almost ashamed to pay attention to an argument of such sophistication, but I will do so because the whole incident still infuriates me. So here goes: first, as readers of this blog can attest, I have been known the criticize the fallacies of Australian culture, including the over reliance on alcohol to lubricate virtually all social engines. Second, two wrongs do not make a right. Third, and most importantly, the whole world from Namibia to Iceland is suffering from an endless number of problems; if we don’t deal with any of them just because other problems exist we’ll never get anywhere.

There is more to this post than dealing with my personal arguments with members of my family as they post feedback on my Flickr photos for the very first time. I wanted to use this opportunity to discuss exactly why I consider this particular problem I had at Israel to be much worse than the problem of drunken behavior at Melbourne.
The first aspect is the ability of an individual to avoid the problem. I can lead a healthy and active life in Melbourne without bumping into drunk people if I want to. Matter of fact, I hardly bump into drunk people even though I don’t actively avoid them, simply by virtue of the fact I don’t have much interest in the places such people tend to occupy. It is not the same in Israel: you encounter security people wherever you go, with your privacy infringed each time you enter larger institutions. Your street corner’s grocery won’t check you up, but your bank and post office would. Not to mention shopping malls.
The second matter is to do with the authority at the hands of the culprit. That security guard in Israel could have put a stain on our holiday plans by preventing us from entering the observatory. However, let us not forget that she could have done much worse: theoretically, she could have arrested us. She could have even shot us: her and the numerous other guards around her were all armed with automatic weapons. As an Israeli, one gets accustomed to the constant presence of guns & ammo all over the place, but this Australian cannot avoid thinking what these tools were designed to do. Somehow, I find them much more intimidating than a drunk person.
The third problem is a direct result of the undisputed authority granted to these security people. When you interact with them, your fate is entirely in their hands; if they decide to treat you in a certain way, you don’t have many options to fight back with and argue back other than appealing to their humanity (a quality that is often lacking with those employed in security services). For example, was that security guard to decide our camera prevents us from entering the shopping mall, there was nothing we could have done about it. If she decided to be even more of a pain, we wouldn’t have had much we could have done about it either. Just ask the Palestinians who routinely have to cross army security checks for their insight into such experiences.
Which brings me to my main point: as far as I am concerned, my incident with the security guard at a shopping mall located in the center of Tel Aviv indicates just how far the damage of Israel's occupation culture has proliferated into the very veins of the Israeli experience. After all, the same people that hold the potential evil Arab terrorists at bay in various checkpoints end up running the security of Jewish folks' shopping centers, don’t they? You can’t expect them to switch to a different brain when they move some ten to twenty kilometers nearer to the coast, can you? You can’t have it both ways. You cannot have one without the other.

Needless to say, Israel does not hold a monopoly over the security culture. If anything, Israel can boast some decent arguments in favor of this culture (not that these won me over; it is this culture that was the number one reason I aspired to leave Israel for a better place).
For the rest of us, encounters with the security culture at its brightest tend to be limited to airport visits. There we are expected to shut up and accept being undressed by radiating porn scanners, viewed in the nude by operators we wouldn’t let near our homes under normal circumstances, get poked all over our bodies by people we don’t know, and in general be treated like sheep. Dumb sheep: we are not allowed to take photos, not allowed to use our phones (a felony upon landing at Melbourne), and are even expected to adopt a special language. As in, let’s see what happens to you the next time you utter words such as “bomb” or “terrorist” near an airport. And with all of the above, you are not allowed to dispute or argue; you either cooperate and get to fly, or you get yourself arrested. Do not pack reason with you on your flight.
All of this, for what? The number of terrorists apprehended under all of the above mentioned airport security schemes is incredibly round, while terrorists’ bombs find their way to planes under the guise of inkjet printer refills. With all their porn scanning, TSA's own testers still manage to smuggle shotguns on board airplanes on the majority of their attempts. In other words, we chose to adopt a culture of security not in order to bring true security, but rather to create the illusion of security.
Let’s quit our security binge drinking and return to sober policy making. Let’s reinstate the culture of respecting one another and appreciating each others’ basic human rights instead. There are some things we should not copy from Israel and/or America; the security state of mind is one of them.


Uri said...

Are you sure this is an anti-terror precaution and not an anti-theft one?
I know that in many large US shops they get uncomfortable if you start taking pictures. Maybe they think you’re planning a burglary (the description I heard was “casing the joint”), or that you’re planning a lawsuit (possibly scarier).
I suggest an experiment – go to the bank and start taking pictures in your usual obsessive way, and we’ll see what’s the reaction.
BTW, if I were to look outside my window now, and see a stranger taking many pictures of the house, I might be worried too.

I wonder if anyone has done a survey of how the airport security measures affect the personal safety feeling of people. I know you don’t feel any safer, but it’s possible that many people do.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I have no problem with a policy of forbidding photography. The shopping mall is a private area, and they're allowed to make their own regulations and ask people that do not comply to leave their premises. That's what banks do. Otherwise, in most countries the law states that the photography of public areas is allowed. That might scare you, but it's the same law that allowed Google to take photos of your house for Google Street View; they certainly got many people worried, and in certain countries privacy laws prevailed and Google had to take those photos down.
None of the above applied to my particular incident at Azriely, though. My entire point is that everyone entering the shopping mall did so with a camera on them (assuming everyone carries a mobile phone), yet none of them was harassed; however, I was harassed, and solely for the crime of carrying an SLR. Not taking photos or anything, just carrying the SLR.
If they don't want photos taken then they should put a sign or something. Don't run me through all sorts of questions that make it sound as if I am suspected of being the next Bin Laden when all I want to do is take my four year old to an observatory.

As for your second point. Surveys in both Australia and the UK clearly indicate that the majority of the public feels safer with the extreme security measures taken there.
However, those measures have also been proven to have no implications whatsoever on actual security. If perception is what matters to you then, by all means, enjoy being groped. If actual security matters to you then you should seek alternative ways that actually work (and, hopefully, ways that do not infringe on people's basic rights). Hint: generally speaking, terrorists are best apprehended before they even come near the airport.