Our Paranoid Society

This is what happens when everyone is afraid of everyone else:

His mission was to photograph each of the nation’s 50 state capitol buildings and dispatch a postcard from each city, using postage stamps from a childhood collection. Each postcard would be mailed to the next state on his journey, where he would pick it up, continuing until he had gone full circle back to Indiana.

But there was a problem. On a flight from Sacramento, Calif., to Honolulu, Mr. Fazel described his project to a fellow passenger. He later discovered that she had reported him as suspicious — perhaps to the pilot or the Transportation Security Administration — and taken a picture of him as he slept.

How paranoid must we be for a passenger on an airplane to go to the trouble of taking a picture of someone while they sleep so as to make it easier to report him to the authorities?! Would you do this? Could you ever see yourself doing this? I know I couldn’t.

Once we start reporting one another for “suspicious activity,” we’re doomed. Neighbors who don’t get along will be reporting each other for fictions and imagined crimes, and the system will be abused for personal gain. After all, if you can just call a number and say “so-and-so acted weird, I suspect he’s a terrorist” and have that person arrested - I mean, c’mon people! We’re one step away from a loud knock in the middle of the night and lots of scary looking men in black jackets land here!

And if I hear one person say “we need to be like this, people are out to kill us, it’s a strange new world after 9/11,” I will say BULL. There is a fine line between healthy suspicion and rampant paranoia, and I am telling you – this is the latter, not the former.

Now that this gentleman has been (wrongly) accused, how does he clear his good name? How does he get himself off the “extra screening” list? How can he stop the harassment? He was not charged of anything, he turned out to be completely harmless. So where is his recourse?

Unlike being arrested for a “normal” crime, he has no recourse. There is no court that can seal his records (or remove them completely). He has no one to appeal to. The system is secret and allows for no questioning of its inner workings. It is a system designed to quash any opposition. If you don’t like it, be careful about saying so – you’ll end up on the list and endlessly harassed every time you exercise your right to travel. The system is designed to “bully” people into submission. You dare not speak up for fear of the inconvenience it’ll cause you.

Which, coincidentally, brings to mind the story of a bunch of people who got fed up with the same sort of thing – a system designed to “bully” them into submission. Every time they complained, the system just squeezed them harder, hoping that they’d just roll over and accept domination.

Fortunately for us, those people didn’t roll over. They were the founding fathers of the United States of America, and they stood up to this sort of harassment, bullying, and removal of their inalienable rights.

We could all do well to learn – or re-learn – from their example in these troubling times.

An Amazingly Good Quote

I found this quote here:

My philosophy is to “educate and then trust the general public”. This philosophy is in line with the basic values of democracies. The government’s approach to homeland security is “keep everything secret and trust nobody”. This is in line with the basic values of authoritarian governments.

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

New Jersey DMV and Online Forms

First off, let me clarify. It’s not the DMV – the Department of Motor Vehicles – down here. (In fact, it wasn’t the DMV back in Massachusetts, either – it was the RMV, the Registry of Motor Vehicles.) In New Jersey we have the pretentious name of “Motor Vehicle Commission.” But I’ll still just say DMV.

ANYWAY.

Obviously, I’ve moved here from out of state, with the Keithmobile-D (my car), and therefore I need to register it here and get New Jersey plates & all that jazz. So, I go to the NJ DMV website to find out what I need to do. They have a very nice section for out-of-state vehicles that explains what forms you need (although the convoluted form names make no sense, at least they are listed). Basically, I need to send a form back to my bank that has the car’s title (I’m still making payments) and get them to send a copy to the NJ DMV, then I just need to fill out a registration form and an “application for titling” – so that my car’s title (i.e. certificate of ownership) is registered here in NJ. Fairly standard DMV stuff, but whatever.

My first indication of trouble was that there were no links on the page that lists what you need to do if you have an out-of-state vehicle for the forms that you need to fill out.

My second indication was that a quick search for forms didn’t turn much up. It was only after some serious googling that I found the DMV’s “forms” page – helpfully located in the “About Us” section. Riiiiiiiight.

However, NONE of the forms I needed to fill out (all 3 of them) were available online. What the hell is the point of having an online forms section if all of the forms aren’t available?? Wouldn’t this be a really good idea? New residents might not know where a DMV office is; it would be very helpful to be able to download the necessary forms and print them out. Especially since these forms often require the VIN number to be entered on them, and if you made them, say, fillable PDF forms, you could type the VIN number in – avoiding delays caused by bad handwriting.

It is absolutely unforgivable in this day and age (2007 for crying out loud!) for a state agency as common as the DMV not to have all of its forms available on their website. It just doesn’t make any sense.

I’m sure they have some sort of crazy justification that they’ve told themselves over and over again until they believed it as to why someone would have to come into one of their offices to pick up a form, rather than download it off the Internet. Maybe I have to show ID to get it? I wouldn’t be surprised. (Don’t even get me started on what you have to do to get a license here nowadays. Can you say “papers, please?”)

Note to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission: PUT ALL OF YOUR FORMS ONLINE AS PDFs. Make them fillable while you’re at it. Your people will have an easier time reading submitted forms, and people will enjoy the convenience. Everyone wins.

Never Fear

Fear.

Fear has been used throughout our history to justify some of the most horrible actions ever taken by people – all in the name of justice, righteousness, and protection. It has happened before, and I assert that it is happening again. And it is up to us to stop it now.

There is a great line from the movie V for Vendetta:

“I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense.”

This has never been more true than it is now. I especially like that bit, “rob you of your common sense.” Allow me to demonstrate the ridiculous levels to which our fear has elevated itself (with thanks to Bruce Schneier for the links):

Fear that Terrorists might Poison Gumball Machines

“Fear that terrorists could poison children has led three Dover aldermen to begin inspecting gumball machines.

“They’ve surveyed 103 machines in the Morris County town and expect to report their results on New Year’s Day.

“Aldermen Frank Poolas, Jack Delaney and Michael Picciallo have found 100 unlicensed machines filled with gumballs, jawbreakers and other candies. The three feel they’re ripe for terrorists to lace with poisoned products.”

And:

Fear that Remote-Controlled Toys Might be Used as Bombs

“Airport screeners are giving additional scrutiny to remote-controlled toys because terrorists could use them to trigger explosive devices, the Transportation Security Administration said Monday.”

Snow-globes are also suspect:

Fear of Snow Globes that Might be Used as Bombs

“Snow globes, regardless of size of amount of liquid inside, even with documentation, are prohibited in your carry-on.”

The list goes on and on. In case the absolute absurdity of that first one escaped you, let me re-state it: someone is checking gumball machines because they are afraid a terrorist might have poisined the gumballs.

What sort of person thinks up things like this? How afraid do you have to be to wake up one morning and think, “Oh my God! Our gumball machines are totally vulnerable! What if someone poisined them?” Just how fearful are you to seriously consider this as a credible threat, one worth spending a lot of time worrying about? You’re probably more likely to get hit by lightning, but I don’t see newspapers plastered with headlines like “Terrorists Claim Responsibility for Lightning Strike.” (Although now that I’ve said it, I’m sure I’ll see that headline soon.)

It’s sad, very, very sad, to see all this happening in my lifetime.

Think about this: we’ve become so fearful that we’re willing to accept any vague “threat” as if it were an imminent disaster about to strike. It’s the “Chicken Little” phenomenon – we were hit on the head once, and now whenever someone makes a claim like “the sky is falling,” we react as if it were totally true and possible.

All this, of course, leads me to ask a simple question – with a rather troubling answer:

Can you really say you are “free” when you live your whole life in fear?

You might argue that there are “reasons” to be afraid. You might even be right. But a healthy dose of skepticism goes a long way towards preventing abuses. I don’t like “slippery slope” arguments, but experience has shown that the “slippery slope” is often quite real.

Speaking of “slippery slopes,” allow me to quote Captain Picard:

“Oh, yes. That’s how it starts! But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think.”

Although a fictional character from a (science) fictional show, there is a good deal of truth in that statement. And while I’m at it, let me quote the Afterward section (written by Erich Fromm) of the paperback edition of George Orwell’s 1984:

“…fright and hatred of a possible aggressor will destroy the basic attitudes of a democratic, humanistic society.”

And since 1984 was written in 1948, you can see that these are not new ideas. We’ve seen it time and time again – fear used to usurp power.

I’m not trying to place blame here. I’m not a mindless “Bush-basher,” nor am I going to spout the other party’s lines that would place the blame all on Clinton (either Bill or Hillary). The situation is a bit more complicated than that, although few people seem to realize it. Politics is a complex game of give and take, after all. Although if you want to point fingers, well, allow me to quote V for Vendetta again:

“…if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.”

This is a democracy, after all. Whatever else has been going on, you still have the power of your voice and your vote. Hell, with the power of the Internet, your voice has never been more powerful, or more capable of reaching a wide audience. There’s no escaping responsibility on this one.

Of course, frankly, at this point, I think you can put aside all the talk of terrorists and Islamic extremists and whatever else you want to use to justify these sorts of actions. At this point, they could all retire, and nothing would change. We’ve become our own worst enemy. Fear has become our enemy. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and that’s God-damned right. It’s time for us to grow up, and stop being afraid.

I know I’m not afraid. The question is, then, are you?

Luggage Tricks That Don’t Work

To save us the trouble of having to lug her laptop all the way down here, Amanda sent her laptop to her parent’s house here via FedEx (the “express super-fast” service of course).

It’s now 2 weeks later. The package is at Adelaide Airport, but they won’t release it. It got caught up in customs on the way here, and then they wouldn’t release it because they thought it was being sent to someone down here to keep, and you need to pay duties & declare things like that. So it took quite a bit of work (and some last minute filling of forms & faxing things around) to get past that stage. So at this point, it should be OK to release – but of course it’s the weekend and they won’t deliver it to us now. So maybe on Monday it’ll get here. Maybe.

Normal shipping time for this service is less than a week – usually 4-5 days. (They literally just pack the shipment onto a plane and get it going; it takes about as long as it does for a person to get down here.) We’re now moving past 2 weeks.

You do the math.