Security or Paranoia? Kentwood’s Water Tower

Ed Heil‘s been a friend of mine since the age of six. It’s pretty much a given then, that I think he’s a decent guy.

Kentwood’s municipal staff haven’t known him as long and apparently weren’t willing to risk the possibility that he wasn’t.

The gist of the situation is that Ed took a picture of Kentwood’s water tower and one of the workers there noticed and asked his name. Ed didn’t believe he had any reason to give his name, and didn’t, but the person (and it sounds like more than one person from the article) followed him into Kentwood’s library and continued to request his name. Eventually he gave it to them.

It’s kind of bizarre.

It reminds me, oddly enough, of being in the Soviet Union as part of a college choir tour.

While we were there, we learned that we were not allowed to take pictures of train stations, and airports. Annoyed by this, I made a point of taking a couple pictures while inside a subway, and one or two of the Moscow airport as we flew away on a KLM jet.

Post 9/11, taking pictures of train stations, airports, and harbors (if I remember correctly) is also discouraged in the United States.

I recognize that there are potential security issues here. In theory, terrorists could strike anywhere. If you protect the big cities, they might go for smaller ones. If you profile people from the Middle East, they’ll use people who look European.

The question is, how far do you go?

Though it’s probably worth worrying about a city’s water supply, is it worth making everyone who takes a picture give their name? More to the point are they making everyone give their name, or do they only do it on a whim?

If they don’t have permanent guards or cameras there, is the water supply really safe?

And if they don’t have guards or cameras, why don’t they?

If it’s because the low level of risk doesn’t justify the expense, one might ask if the level of risk justifies randomly interrogating people with cameras.

If you read the article I linked to, you might find the Kentwood government representatives’ comments interesting.

The mayor states that he’s “proud of” the employee. On the one hand, it’s good that the man takes his job seriously. On the other, essentially what he did was grab some people and try to bully someone into giving his name.

What’s also interesting? The new policy, as of Friday (the day after the incident), is to call the police when you see something suspicious. Don’t do anything yourself.

That’s a good thing in the sense that I’ve got more faith in the police officers’ ability to handle things appropriately than I do in the water department’s staff. It’s not so good in that it means that they’ll potentially be sending out the police to hassle people at the water tower on a semi-regular basis instead of having them go out to solve actual crimes.

In summary…

In situations like this we have to balance personal liberty against public security. My suspicion is that if the solution reminds me of experiences I had while traveling behind the Iron Curtain, we’ve moved too far in the direction of security.