back to the Black Table
               
  DON'T SHOOT! DON'T SHOOT!  
   
   
 

Pretend, for a moment, that you're a terrorist targeting the New York City subway system. Which of the three following schemes would be your top choice for inflicting unspeakable damage?

Scheme #1: Disguise your evil minions as tourists from Iowa. Send them into a subway station. Under the pretext of snapping pictures of themselves in this exotic locale, have them document every square inch of the subway. Armed with the photos from their scouting mission, reconstruct a full-scale model of the station back in your lair. Devise some nefarious plan that requires a half-dozen terrorists, split-second timing and carefully calculated distances. Rehearse it endlessly in your station mock-up in preparation for the big day.

Scheme #2: Have those tourist-impersonating minions exhaustively photograph subway cars. Using those photos as a guide, build a perfect duplicate of a subway train, but one that's loaded with explosives. Unobtrusively place it into service on some deserted section of tracks in Brooklyn. Head toward Manhattan, and when you reach a populated area, detonate the booby-trapped train.

Scheme #3: Fill a backpack with explosives. During rush hour, place it on a platform or in a subway car. Blow it up.

Now, if you picked #1 or #2, you take Mission: Impossible way too seriously.

Or, more likely, you're an official at New York City Transit -- which, in its finite wisdom, has decreed that it will prohibit photography and videotaping on buses and in subways. The vague justification for the decision, as reported in The New York Times, is a need to "enhance security and safety."

I'd like my security and safety enhanced as much as anybody. But the utter folly of this proposed rule is staggering. It's sort of like setting up a tent in the shadow of an erupting volcano, then spending 20 minutes applying bug repellent: The danger you're guarding against is minuscule compared to the one you ought to fear.

Let's not resign ourselves to a photography ban by calling it a minor sacrifice we must make to create a safer New York. In fact, there is no plausible relationship between the photography prohibition and any increased security. Such limitations make sense at, say, a nuclear power plant or inside a courtroom -- obvious terrorist targets which aren't easily accessible, and which might require crafty reconnaissance.

In contrast, millions of people ride New York City buses and subways every week. It's no big secret what these vehicles look like, and where to find them.

It's also no big secret how to kill people on mass transit: You make some explosive device, you carry it on board, and you set it off. It's a pretty simple process. It doesn't require picture-taking ahead of time. And history has taught people that it works.

Religious cultists did it with nerve gas in Japan. Palestinians do it with bombs in Israel. Someone else did it on trains in Spain. And a man has already attempted it in New York City. Ten years ago, one Edward Leary tried to kill people with a gasoline-filled bomb on the 4 train; he managed to burn nearly 50 people, including himself.

I fear another Edward Leary. I sort of fear another Darius McCollum, the serial bus- and train-hijacker who just got arrested for trespassing in a Queens rail yard. But a Republican conventioneer with a Kodak moment, I'm not so worried about.

What's infuriating about the photography ban is not just how stupid it is, but how wrong it is, too. We New Yorkers live much of our lives riding a bus or subway train, or waiting for one to arrive. In the city, public transportation is public space -- the big-city equivalent of the mythical small-town square where people come together. We run into friends on the subway. We go on dates. We look over people's shoulders to see what they're reading.

The tourists who visit New York recognize that the subway system is inextricably intertwined with the life of the city, so they take pictures of it. And, despite our embarrassment at looking like a tourist, we who live here take pictures on the subway, too.

It's offensive that New York City Transit wants to criminalize the photography of milestones and minutiae in our everyday underground lives. It's especially offensive to rationalize the prohibition by using the debate-silencing appeal to Homeland Security, when the security payoff is nonexistent. A ban would not make us more safe; it would only make us feel less so. We would worry that some sullen, scruffy-looking art student loitering with a camera is actually a terrorist. Or we would fret about the punishment we would incur by sneaking a picture of our infant's first ride on the A train.

Our real worry shouldn't be the hypothetical threat posed by taking pictures of what's readily visible to millions of people. It should be the simple, brutish attack that has an unfortunate record of success. Prohibiting photography would be not only a waste of counter-terrorism efforts, but a pointless encroachment on one of the little pleasures of our lives.