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Jewish World Review August 22, 2002 / 14 Elul, 5762

Robert W. Tracinski

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The photographing of public art and architecture has apparently been deemed a threat to the Republic | I just discovered a story that sums up, better than anything else, the end result of the War on Terrorism so far. It is a story, not about the suppression of Islamic fanatics in the Middle East, but about the suppression of our own liberties here in the United States.

The back cover of my magazine, The Intellectual Activist, is devoted to images of inspiring realist works of art. I particularly like to find little-known, neglected works to bring to the attention of our readers. One of my best sources for these images is Lee Sandstead, a graduate student in art history at the City University of New York who is also making a promising beginning as a photographer. Lee specializes in 19th-century "Academic" art -- the highly refined realist school that was attacked and driven into obscurity to make room for the "abstract" smears and blobs of modern art. Lee frequently sends me photos of these forgotten realist sculptures that he finds tucked away in New York's public parks.

This may seem like a harmless activity, unrelated to the War on Terrorism. In fact, it is the polar opposite of the threat posed by the terrorists. Bin Laden and his Taliban allies were opposed to art as such, and they would be especially appalled by idealized versions of the nude human figure -- the favorite subject of the Academic sculptures Lee photographs.

Yet the photographing of public art and architecture has apparently been deemed a threat to the Republic.

Three weeks ago, Lee was setting up his camera to photograph Discus Thrower, by Costas Dimitriadis, a sculpture installed in 1926 on Randall's Island at the Eastern end of New York's Triborough Bridge. As he was taking the first shot, Lee heard a stern voice commanding him to "Stand away from the camera" -- in the same tone that a bank robber would be instructed to put down his weapon and come out with his hands up. New York City transportation police then detained him for 45 minutes while they ran his name through the FBI database. It should be no surprise that the blond-haired, blue-eyed Tennessee native did not show up on any watch-lists for Muslim terrorists.

This harassment by the police might be forgivable, as an overzealous precaution, except for one thing. When Lee's name was cleared, he asked the police if he could continue taking photos of the sculpture. He was told that all photography in the area was prohibited, and when we checked later, we discovered that there was no process by which one can get permission to take photographs of the sculpture.

Why? The Discus Thrower happens to be near the Triborough Bridge -- though the one photo Lee managed to take shows no signs of the structure. The policemen's rationalization is that Muslim terrorists often take photos of their intended targets as part of the preparation for bombing attacks on public monuments. This is how they justify a blanket prohibition on photography by American art historians.

Remember that all Lee was interested in was the sculpture. What if he were interested in the history and design of the bridge itself? My wife is an architectural historian, and her work includes taking photos of public structures and monuments. A few months before September 11, she gave a lecture in New York City about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. If she tried to take photographs of the bridge today, she would be detained and prohibited.

Surely, you might argue, some restrictions must be accepted because of the war. I agree -- but what war is that?

Since September 11, Americans have been subjected to a string of petty harassments and infringements on our liberty, from intrusive searches in airports to massive new spending of our tax dollars -- all justified in the name of "the war." Yet no war is being fought overseas. The war in Afghanistan is all but finished, and no one, from the president to Congress, has committed to a new war against Iraq.

Restrictions like a ban on photographing public monuments might be tolerable as temporary security measures "for the duration." But if there is no war, then they are just permanent losses of our liberty. And worse: these infringements are carried out, not by law, but by decree of the transportation police.

The war against state sponsors of terrorism has been abandoned -- yet it is used as justification for the only war that still exists: a war on American liberty.

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