Friday, October 15, 2010

Arbitrary Power

I'm going to interrupt the ongoing series on last weekend's Bhaktapur trip, in order to talk about an incident that happened yesterday, which was particularly jarring.

Yanik, Mikaela, and myself went to Thamel with Mikaela's friend Mary for lunch. Mary is a professional photographer and had just arrived in Nepal the night before for her vacation. We had decided to take her to Thamel (basically the expat neighborhood in Kathmandu) to give her a chance to see Kathmandu and also because we wanted to eat delicious Japanese food.

Lunch was a success, and after that we decided to walk around a bit, maybe do some shopping, etc. This walk brought us to the primary intersection in front of Thamel. This is one of the busiest intersections in all of Kathmandu and with good reason. The entrance to Thamel sits on one side of the intersection, while the former Royal Palace (now a museum) and the American Club occupy the opposite side of the street.

The American Club (called Phora Durbar locally) is U.S. government property. It is guarded by U.S. Embassy security guards and a huge concrete wall. The only way to enter is through a security checkpoint complete with luggage scanner, metal detector, the works...

Despite the rather heavy security, the club itself isn't anything particularly special. It's basically a country club for American Embassy workers and U.S. expats. There's tennis courts, a bar, a swimming pool, a playground, manicured lawns, and a store that sells some American goods. It's a place where expats can pretend that they're back in America.

It's quite fashionable, particularly in Academia, to claim that the U.S. is a neo-imperialist or colonial power. I've never bought into that sort of talk, mainly because I think it misappropriates the terms "imperialist" and "colonial" to make a very simplistic comparison. I don't think the way we wield our power internationally maps in a coherent manner onto the way the British Empire (for instance) used it's power. Having said that, the American Club does hearken back to the sort of bull shit one might have expected in a British Colony...

But I digress (sort of), we were walking and we came to this major intersection. Usually, this intersection is insane. "Nepali traffic laws" is something of an oxymoron and this intersection is usually a good example of that fact. But this time, something was different - the intersection was completely empty.

Turns out the reason for this was that the police were holding up traffic in all directions because the security detail for some Nepali politicians was about to come driving through. Meanwhile, Mary and Mikaela, who both had their cameras with them, decided to photograph the intersection, because it was just so unusual to see it empty.

So they're snapping away, when a Nepali police officer approaches them. Now, it's important that you understand what "Nepali police officer" means here. This is not your typical blue uniformed, funny hat wearing, pistol carrying police officer. No. This is more like being approached by a soldier. Blue and white camoflage, combat helmet, and armed with a sub-machine gun (though M16's and AK47's are more common). Point is, this is a fairly intimidating person to be detained by.

And detain he does. What's the problem? Apparently, you're not allowed to photograph the exterior of the American Club. Yanik and I were actually across the street from Mikaela and Mary at this point, so we cross back. Yanik starts talking to the officer. They're American citizens. They're tourists. They didn't know. There's no harm. The officer is actually pretty friendly (and Yanik is very good at talking to strangers), but he's also unequivocal. He doesn't really understand the American Club's photography ban and it's annoying for him to enforce it. But he's required to detain people who take photographs and bring them to the security office of the American Club. If he doesn't, he could lose his job.

So we walk across the street to the American Club's security checkpoint. Yanik stays outside, while the three of us get buzzed in through the security doors. The Nepali officer explains the situation to the Embassy security guards who work the checkpoint (who, like the police officer, are Nepali citizens). Apparently, they're going to need to interrogate Mary and Mikaela. Not eager to risk ending up on some terrorist watch list, I agree to wait at the checkpoint, while Mary and Mikaela go into an adjoining room with an embassy guard.

Forty five minutes later, they come out. During that time, their names, camera serial numbers, addresses and phone numbers (both in the US and Nepal) were recorded. Mug shots were taken. Mikaela is here on a Fulbright scholarship. The guards phoned the Fulbright Commission in Nepal to confirm that fact.  Finally, the two of them were required to delete the offending photos.

As we walk out of the checkpoint, past the large concrete walls, we spot two little signs. No Photography. They are clearly too small to be visible from across the street. Annoyed and exhausted, we catch a cab, and go home.


I recognize that what happened to us yesterday isn't a particularly unusual incident. Amateur photographers in the U.S. get stopped all the time for this sort of thing. I am not a lawyer, but as far as I can tell from a google search, most of those stops are illegal and probably unconstitutional. It happens anyways.

I also recognize that, in some ways, this isn't a big deal. Yes, we were inconvenienced. About an hour of our time was wasted. But we had no major investment in the photos that were deleted. Unless they show up on some no-fly list or similar watch list, which I think is pretty unlikely, there are not going to be future negative consequences for Mary or Mikaela as a result of this incident. In the greater scheme of things, it's a minor incident with little in the way of negative repercussions for us.

But let me be absolutely clear - none of that excuses this sort of behavior by a government, and especially not by the U.S. government. What happened yesterday was dysfunctional and messed up. Here's why...

Security is almost always the rationale given to justify these incidents, so it will be important to address that rationale first. The argument runs something like this:
We need to prohibit photography of the exteriors of federal buildings because terrorists, or others who want to harm us, could use such photos to plan an attack against us. If someone does take a photo of the exterior of a federal building, they should be interrogated, in case they turn out to be a terrorist or someone who otherwise wants to harm us.
Let's think about this rationale and it's crushing, idiotic logic. There are so many ways a real terrorist could bypass this. They could take pictures surreptitiously. They could access pictures online. They could scheme and plan using any number of tools that are substitutes for pictures, including a map (that menace to public safety!), also available for free online. So you're not really throwing a wrench in the plans of terrorists by banning photography.

Instead, what you are doing is detaining tourists who don't know about your photography ban and inadvertently take pictures. I was chatting with one of the guards at the club and she said that this sort of thing happens every day there. So that means that every day, you are diverting some of the energy and time of your security resources towards interrogating tourists, something that does not in any way make you safer. That is time and energy that could instead be spent doing something that actually makes you safer. Hmmmmm.

Worse still, you are subjecting random people to a profoundly alienating experience, a process that is virtually guaranteed to breed resentment towards the U.S. (You know, in case the fact that our government owns a palace sized country club in the center of Kathmandu - a city with more than it's share of bitter poverty - isn't already doing that well enough...). From the second we were approached by that Nepali police officer, we were made to feel like criminals. This security policy is predicated on the idea that people who take pictures of the American Club are potential terrorists. The whole process doesn't really begin with an assumption of innocence. The heavily armed police officer, the American Club security checkpoint where you have to be buzzed through security doors that lock behind you, the metal detector, the sound proofed interrogation room, the mugshots - all of these things are essentially shows of force, almost calculated to intimidate. They serve to signal that you are in the midst of a protocol that you have virtually no control over.

Mary and Mikaela are both American citizens. That means that they are almost guaranteed to be more sympathetic to American policy goals, American institutions, etc. than most other people in Nepal. Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that they came out of this incident irritated and jaded. They resented the fact that they had to go through this pointless process. I was subjected to less, but I was (and still am) quite irritated about the whole thing. Now imagine what it must be like for the occasional European or Asian tourist or local Nepali, who makes the same mistake they did. Feeling safer yet?

What bothers me most about the entire incident, however, is what it has to teach about the relationship between ordinary people and state power. I still have no idea whether we were legally compelled to go through with the whole thing. I have no idea if there was any legal basis for the requirement that Mary and Mikaela delete the pictures and provide their information. If this had happened in America, I would have also been unsure. That this was happening in Nepal only makes me less certain. I am sure that there is some lawyer specializing in international civil liberties law who can tell me whether the American Club was within their rights and whether they were or were not violating ours. That I would need a lawyer in order to know is part of the problem.

During their interrogation, Mary and Mikaela asked what would happen if they refused to give their information or delete the photos. They were given the cryptic response that that sort of behavior would be "a big problem." I'm guessing that the Nepali police officer and the embassy guards don't know whether their have a legal right to detain people for taking photos of the American Club. What they probably know is that this is the protocal they have been told to follow. If they want to keep their jobs, they must do this and that is also part of the problem.

You see, the entire situation is set up such that it is almost always easier to just go along with it than to resist it. The second that photograph was taken, an almost inexorable process had been set in motion. If we had simply walked away when the police officer asked us to accompany him to the American Club's security checkpoint, what would have happened? Would he have forcibly arrested us? The important thing is not what might have happened, but that as ordinary people we were not in a position where it made any sense to find out. Similarly, what if Mary and Mikaela had refused to give their information, or refused to delete the photos. Again, we could ask what would have happened. Maybe Mary and Mikaela would have been detained over night. Maybe they would have simply been free to walk out. I don't know. But again, the important thing is that they were simply not in a position where it was practical to risk calling the American Club's bluff (if it was, in fact, a bluff). It made no sense to object. It was easier to do what they said. These are the instructive facts here.

We have set up a legal framework that is so complicated that most of us cannot internalize it's arcane tenets. We have also given the state a monopoly on the use of coercive force. There may be good reasons for doing these things (personally, I think there are, though it wouldn't hurt to simplify our legal system) and my purpose here is not to criticize them. But, we also need to recognize that these policies lead to incidents like what happened yesterday. When you pit ordinary individuals against the monolithic authority of the state, it is easy for the state to get what it demands - regardless of the legality of those demands - because it is usually safer and more convenient for individuals to acquiesce to those demands than to resist them.

As I've already said, we were fortunate that in this case the repercussions were minor. That is not always the case, when the state wields it's power arbitrarily...


  1. Nick, hi! Good reporting. Lament, American colonialism ala Dick Cheney and PNAC, lacking the historical British protocols and moderate charm.

    Work on your Tai Chi, and build in some exercises in 'ducking.' Dare we say it, Nepal duck versus Peking duck...(-:

    BTW, your site does not like the normal characters in an email address -- renders "illegal characters." So, not "anonymous" by virtue of any behavioral anomaly...(-:

    Stay safe. Love...Tapa

  2. @Tapa Glad you liked the post.

    I don't think I agree, though, that colonialism or Dick Cheney do much to explain this incident. It's easy to write this off as the work of neo-cons but they're not in power anymore. Also, I don't think our government is behaving particularly colonial in this case...more illogically paranoid than anything else...

    On an unrelated note, be careful about writing out your email address on a public forum like this. Email spammers run bots that build spam lists by looking for that sort of thing, which is very easy to spot given how unique the @ character is. If you absolutely must put your email address on a public forum do it like this: soandso at blah dot com.

  3. There are a lot of frustrating parts about this sort of thing. First of all it creates a lot of ill-will to force people to delete their photos, let alone ask them all sorts of questions. Second, it clearly does no real good, as photos are publicly available, everywhere on the internet, could be taken surreptitiously, etc. Also, deleting photos from memory cards is not even an effective way to get rid of them, as the data is not actually deleted but rather marked to be written over in the future, and can be easily recovered with one of many free and widely available programs. This is yet another way that efforts are made to increase safety that are not only ineffective but probably counterproductive (as you mention in distracting the guard's attention and wasting everyone's time).

    As a side note, from your telling, it seems like the security guards were at least polite and relatively friendly, even if they were inconveniencing you and your friends. Although I'm sure this sort of thing happens frequently, a few years ago there was a similar incident with photos being taken of the US embassy, and it was a big deal in the Nepali press. I had hoped the embassy might have relaxed a bit after that, but I guess not.

  4. @Anon All things considered, the guards were relatively friendly and definitely polite. This sort of thing inconveniences them too and as a result I think they understood our situation and maybe empathized a little.

  5. Well of course the point of 60 years of recent politics is that this is far more upsetting and problematic when you are a citizen with a minority skin color facing dumb police and bureaucratic power in your own country. The good news (for us, at least) is that we live in a plutocracy, rather than in a bureaucracy, and much of the world is following suit. This is good because under the capitalist system, most people devote their petty power to making other people happy by providing them with what they expressly desire (as manifested by their willing to shell out hard cash for it), and while that can obviously have its problems too, its alot better than the alternative. The few residual pockets of bureaucracy in our system are often very annoying. For example, every day I get into a cab in Manhattan and immediately several minutes of horrible new aged music starts playing loudly on a video screen in front of me that cannot be turned off, and then, a geek of an individual appears on the screen and identifies himself as the "head of taxicabs in New York City" and proceeds, with a self-congratulatory smile, to encourage me to call the taxicab bureau and let him know what sorts of things I would prefer in a taxicab and to tell me how proud and pleased he is to be the head of taxicabs in New York City, by which he means, of course, how proud and pleased he is with himself. Needless to say, the first thing I would tell whoever answered the phone at the taxicab bureau (if I could actually get him or her to answer the phone, and if I actually thought my message would ultimately reach the self-congratulatory individual who purports to be the head of taxicabs in New York City, which of course it would not, any more than your statements to the security guard in Kathmundu would actually reach the person who put this thoughtful security policy into place) is that they should remove these annoying video players from taxicabs, because no one has any desire to be accosted several times a day every day of their lives by this music and message that cannot be turned off, but that message will never get through, because these video players were not installed in these cabs in the pursuit of profit, but rather by fiat by the head of taxicabs in New York City. Yet that said, I must confess that the prior post is correct in referencing Cheney (or Kissinger), because central bureaucratic power in the United States is anything but petty, and it is not only rather expensive for Americans, but sometimes it is rather terrifying for the rest of the world, and it is by no means clear with respect to some of our major projects throughout the world that they are better considered in essence than the ones implemented by whoever runs U.S. security in Kathmundu and whoever runs taxicabs in New York City.