In an early Tom Stoppard play called After Magritte, a family returns home after visiting an exhibit of paintings by the famous Belgian surrealist René Magritte. (You know: The guy who has it raining little men with bowler hats, or who gave us a pipe with the caption, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” and so on.) In the play, a policeman peering in the window watches as the family assembles into a bizarre tableau, reminiscent of a Magritte painting. The policeman understandably finds this suspicious. It turns out, though, that there is a perfectly logical explanation for everything. Moral (I suppose): Don’t jump to conclusions.
I’m reminded of this play every time I’m in an airport and hear that announcement about how you should report any “suspicious activity” to the police. You look around and, my god, from the pre-9/11 perspective, it all looks suspicious. Businessmen taking off their shoes and placing them in plastic bins, elderly ladies and people in wheelchairs being frisked, long lines of people waiting for the opportunity to give up all their possessions and forms of identification and walk into a large plastic cylinder that looks as if it might just as easily beam you up to Saturn as find where you’ve hidden an illicit tube of toothpaste.
In my experience, the Transportation Security Administration people who work the security checkpoints at airports are invariably polite, helpful, and patient to a fault. I wouldn’t want to be their cat when they get home. What are they so happy about, after hours of smelling strangers’ shoes? Isn’t that a little suspicious?
So what exactly is “suspicious activity”? It turns out that government at all levels has given this a lot of thought—there are leaflets and posters to download all over the Web. But the conclusions tend to be circular. For example, a notice distributed by the Terrorism Early Warning Unit of the Homeland Security Section of the Columbus, Ohio, Division of Police asks, “What Should I Consider Suspicious?” and answers in part, “people acting suspiciously.”
In fact, there is agreement at all levels of government that suspicious activity is suspicious. Or, to put it another way, that you should be suspicious of suspicious activity. Keep your eyes open for suspicious activity, because when you find it, that’s just where suspicious activity is most likely to be found.
On the other hand (says a leaflet from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the FBI), “Just because someone’s speech, actions, beliefs, appearance or customs are different does not mean that he or she is suspicious.” If someone seems like she might qualify as suspicious because of anything she says, does, or thinks, and so on, etc., that is not a proper suspicion. Put it out of your mind.
According to a website that promulgates guidelines widely used by local law enforcement, “We must train ourselves to be on the lookout for things that are out of the ordinary and arouse suspicions.” So activity is suspicious if it arouses suspicion. This is not helpful. Especially when the same site goes on to warn that terrorists “usually live among us without appearing suspicious.”
If you do spot some suspicious activity, “Take note of the details,” such as how many people, what they are doing, and what they are wearing, “including shoes.” So there you are, in the middle of the terminal, taking notes about people’s shoes. Guess who looks suspicious now?
Indeed “note taking” is specifically mentioned as something that “should cause a heightened sense of suspicion,” along with “suspicious or unusual interest” in something. You should “be aware of the following suspicious behaviors,” the document continues. First item: “Individuals acting furtively and suspiciously.”
Here’s an interesting insight: “Terrorists, when not acting alone, need to meet with their conspirators.” (And if they don’t meet with their co-conspirators, Watson, that is a sign that they just could be working alone.) Therefore, it’s OK to be suspicious of people who “act in a suspicious manner” by demanding privacy, although, “Not all people who maintain privacy are terrorists,” you and Greta Garbo will be glad to hear.
Watch for “Someone bragging or talking about plans to harm citizens in violent attacks or who claims membership in a terrorist organization that espouses killing innocent people.” This person, bragging to strangers about plans to kill innocent people, may be intending to kill innocent people. It’s OK to be suspicious.
A whole series of documents put out by the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the FBI asks, “What should I consider suspicious?”—in a variety of situations. In a hobby shop, for example, it is considered suspicious if a customer is “Demonstrating unusual interest in remote-controlled aircraft” or is “Demonstrating interest that does not seem genuine.” (What would be the point of faking an interest in remote-controlled aircraft? Beats me.) And what should you do if you think you have a terrorist in your hobby shop? You should (among other things) “Talk to customers, ask questions, and listen to and observe their responses.” And—oh no—here we go again: “Make note of suspicious statements, people and/or vehicles.”
This is all well and good, but you’re probably wondering at this point, “How do I spot a terrorist in a tattoo shop?” Not so fast, buddy. “It is important to remember the application of body art, including symbols commonly associated with extremist ideology, may be an exercise of the right of free speech or expression.” Therefore, wanting “a specific tattoo” or even “an unusual placement” should not in and of itself be considered suspicious. Among things that are OK to be considered suspicious in a tattoo shop are “missing hands/fingers” and “suspicious comments regarding anti-US radical theology.” Presumably, in order to qualify as “suspicious,” these would have to be favorable comments.
In a farm-supply store, you should “consider suspicious” any “new customer who is not from local area,” especially if he or she is “appearing to be interested only in ammonium nitrate, displaying no interest in alternative fertilizers.” So now we have a plan. Next time a stranger walks in, we ask him a few questions, give him a few minutes to bring up alternative fertilizers, and if he’s still yapping about ammonium nitrate, tie him up, toss him into the storeroom, and of course “make note of suspicious statements” he may make while you summon the Bureau of Justice Assistance to come pick him up and fly him to some country where they know what to do with suspicious people.
One more. Just one more, I promise. What should you consider “suspicious” in relation to “Martial Arts and Paintball Activities”? Well, “Interest in learning kill and restraint techniques with no occupational need.” The leaflet urges you to “make note of suspicious statements,” natch, and “Watch for people and actions that are out of place.” Would “please teach me kill techniques although I have no occupational need for them” count as a suspicious statement? Would it mark me as “out of place”? Or would the real out-of-place person in a martial arts and paintball emporium be someone who entered with nothing but peaceful intent?
In short, your government wants you to walk around the airport or the paintball center in a haze of suspicion, with special attention paid to other people’s shoes. Some will say this is a recipe for trampling on individual freedom and civil rights. But if the shoe fits, you have nothing to fear.
Michael Kinsley is editor-at-large at The New Republic.