April 2008

News from the world’s greatest surveillance state, the UK, a place where you can’t walk more than a few metres in most cities without being photographed by cameras run by the government and private corporations:

Photographers are being harrassed and intimidated by police and security guards, in defiance of the law, for innocently taking photos of public events.

Gosh, police and security guards over-stepping the bounds of what they are allowed to do? Whoever would have imagined that could happen?

The BBC reports:

Phil Smith thought ex-EastEnder Letitia Dean turning on the Christmas lights in Ipswich would make a good snap for his collection.

The 49-year-old started by firing off a few shots of the warm-up act on stage. But before the main attraction showed up, Mr Smith was challenged by a police officer who asked if he had a licence for the camera.

A licence for a camera? A licence for a camera? As in, this cop thinks that you need government permission to own a camera. And I bet that he thinks “they hate our freedoms”.

After explaining he didn’t need one, he was taken down a side-street for a formal “stop and search”, then asked to delete the photos and ordered not take any more. So he slunk home with his camera.

Smith said that he was singled out because he had an actual camera with a flash, and that there were people taking photos with mobile phones and pocket cameras. Presumably terrorists don’t know how to use camera phones. I want to know what sort of a training system British cops go through that leads them to simultaneously display heavy-handed authoritarianism and the sheer incompetence by ignoring or not noticing all the other photographers.

British MP and amateur photographer Austin Mitchell isn’t amused, and has tabled a motion in the House of Commons calling on the police to “educate officers about photographers’ rights”:

“There’s a general alarm about terrorism and about paedophiles, two heady cocktails, and police and PCSOs [police community support officers] and wardens and authorities generally seem to be worried about this.”

Another moral panic. Oh noes, he has a camera, he must be a terrorist, or a paedophile, or maybe a terrorist-paedophile!!!!! Panic!

Patrick from Making Light writes about a recent experience he had, and I’ve written about similar cases before.

There’s a deeper, more fundamental issue here. As Avram Grumer points out, the primary mission of authority is to preserve authority. In a story about abuse of power from Washington DC, he writes:

Even today, knowing that almost anyone could be holding a video camera and their actions could wind up on YouTube, cops will still bully and assault people for refusing to instantly defer to arbitrary authority. (That first video is a classic of the genre. The cop is a tubby man in a ridiculous uniform, riding around in a tiny vehicle that may as well be a clown car. His life as a cop isn’t turning out like it does in the movie and on TV, and he’s taking it out on anyone he can push around.)

Megan McArdle, another DC libertarian, picks up the story, and her comments section quickly fills with forelock-tuggers and knee-benders justifying the actions of the Park Police, even if they have to make up facts to do it. It’s practically a catalog of dishonest argumentation and propaganda. In fact, I think it’s useful to dissect the examples so that we can recognize them when we see similar arguments on the nation’s editorial pages.

I don’t believe that the constable who singled out Phil Smith and destroyed his property (his photos) was merely ignorant of the law. I don’t believe that he or her really, honestly, didn’t notice a crowd full of people taking photos on their cameras. I believe that (s)he knew exactly what he was doing: making himself feel big by singling out a single person and making their day miserable, just because he could.


When did I become the sort of person who regularly and consistently puts in 11+ hour work days without overtime? And look at the clock and say “Gosh, 8pm, I’m leaving work early tonight”.

Back to blogging Real Soon Now, I promise. Maybe even later tonight, depending what happens after I watch Batman Begins.

Via Metro, a new report from Canada concludes that providing proper housing and care for those suffering from mental illness instead of dumping them in the streets to rot will actually save the province $211 million every year.

The paper – entitled “Housing and Support for Adults With Severe Addictions and/or Mental Illnesses in British Columbia” – says providing non-housing services for such people costs the public system more than $55,000 per year per person.

It says providing adequate housing and supports could reduce this cost to $37,000 per year.

Is anyone surprised that providing adequate health care and housing for people enables them to become less dependent on help than not providing them? Safety nets aren’t just the right thing to do for moral reasons, they end up being cheaper than working without a net. Otherwise you get situations like this:

The [above] study comes two months after a disturbing report by the Vancouver Police Department.

It said up to half the calls police get in some areas of the city are related to mentally ill people.

The police department report suggested officers were spending huge amounts of time dealing with severely mentally ill and drug-addicted people on the streets, when they weren’t specifically trained for that type of intervention.

I have often felt that the self-proclaimed “fiscal conservatives” are penny-wise and pound-foolish. It’s the sort of mindset that will pay a dole inspector $60,000 a year to cut questionable dole payments by $10,000 a year. I’m not suggesting that welfare fraud should be encouraged, but the mean-spirited aggressiveness that the (e.g.) UK government goes after it is all out of proportion to its actual cost.  And of course liberals and lefties can equally be foolish once they get their snouts to the trough, but in general we’re all better off when we look after each other instead of letting those who fall be trampled.

When an old Cold War warrior like Zbigniew Brzezinski argues for exiting the “foolish” war in Iraq, you have to take it seriously:

The case for terminating the war is based on its prohibitive and tangible costs, while the case for “staying the course” draws heavily on shadowy fears of the unknown and relies on worst-case scenarios. President Bush’s and Sen. John McCain’s forecasts of regional catastrophe are quite reminiscent of the predictions of “falling dominoes” that were used to justify continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Neither has provided any real evidence that ending the war would mean disaster, but their fear-mongering makes prolonging it easier. Nonetheless, if the American people had been asked more than five years ago whether Bush’s obsession with the removal of Saddam Hussein was worth 4,000 American lives, almost 30,000 wounded Americans and several trillion dollars — not to mention the less precisely measurable damage to the United States’ world-wide credibility, legitimacy and moral standing — the answer almost certainly would have been an unequivocal “no.”

Nor do the costs of this fiasco end there. The war has inflamed anti-American passions in the Middle East and South Asia while fragmenting Iraqi society and increasing the influence of Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Baghdad offers ample testimony that even the U.S.-installed government in Iraq is becoming susceptible to Iranian blandishments.

Brzezinski correctly notes that al Qaeda doesn’t have much influence or impact in Iraq, although it’s not clear whether he recognises that al Qaeda in Iraq is unrelated to al Qaeda:

The end of the occupation will thus be a boon for the war on al-Qaeda, bringing to an end a misguided adventure that not only precipitated the appearance of al-Qaeda in Iraq but also diverted the United States from Afghanistan, where the original al-Qaeda threat grew and still persists.

(Via Liberal Values.)

I have sympathy for those who genuinely take the moral position “We broke it, it’s our duty to stay until we fix it”, but that’s not how it works. Despite the neo-con fantasies of being welcomed as liberators (remember those film clips of Iraqis waving American flags that they just happened to have lying around?), whatever gratitude the Iraqis have for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is outweighed a thousand times by the anger and fear of seeing their sons and husbands killed, their houses blown up, the torture, the mass arrests, and the undeniable fact that their country is under foreign occupation. The problem isn’t al Qaeda, the problem is the occupation, and the longer it goes on, the worse it will be.

…or why we need to teach people more field biology.

Found cat

Image from Grrlscientist, and thanks to Noni Mausa for the link.

I’m reminded of a time when I was a callow youth when my mother and I accidentally trapped what we thought was some sort of cute little marsupial. Thinking it could have been an endangered beastie, we did the socially responsible thing and called the local park ranger to come identify it.

She took one look at it and pronounced “It’s a rat.”