Mail-art odyssey earns artist spot on TSA watchlist

Snip from a NYT article about Ramak Fazel, an Iranian-American artist whose art-quest to visit the capitols of every US state turned into a very different experience:

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.

Maybe it was because he was vaguely foreign looking, he reasoned, and his photographic endeavor seemed menacing in a post-9/11 landscape. He also had a three-day growth of beard, he recalled. And, although Mr. Fazel grew up mostly in the United States and is an American citizen, there was his Iranian name.

In his view that woman’s report began a chain reaction, turning him into a person of interest for officials from local law enforcement agencies on up to the F.B.I. On a stop in Annapolis, Md., for example, he was interrogated about his activities and read his Miranda rights. Today, he said, his name lingers on what he thinks of simply as the “the list.” (He doesn’t know where it originated or who controls it.) He believes it has prevented him from receiving a visa to India and caused him be questioned at the border of Poland, both of which he had visited in the past. He said he has been interrogated the last four times he has entered the United States.

Link (thanks, Susannah Breslin)


  1. how much does one have to suffer before accumulating enough evidence to sue the government for harrassment?

  2. I’m now more afraid of frightened citizens reporting ANYTHING they deem scary or suspicious– which seems to be just about everything.
    Thanks again to our gov’t for the climate of fear…

  3. In reply to #4

    Because, unlike roving tribes, civilized people can’t and shouldn’t move away anytime an idiot crosses their path. Part of being civilized is that we don’t just up and go but that we find systems to coexist.

    The government, if it has to exist, should ameliorate our failings not amplify them.

  4. Maybe we need to actually start teaching Common Sense in schools, because it seems less common these days.

    This woman figured a real terrorist would explain what he was doing to a total stranger on plane? Right.

  5. Yet another dispatch from the Terrorfied States of America….

    Shouldn’t there be some penalty for us over-zealous scared-shitless Americans who report every olive-skinned, scruffy-bearded young man who happens to every-so-slightly trespass on our personal threat levels? No, no, they shouldn’t be penalized for the 1 in 5 billion who might possibly be a terrorist, just the other 99.99999% of the time where they throw some else’s life into disarray because, being terrorfied, they’re incapable of rational response.

  6. “I’m now more afraid of frightened citizens reporting ANYTHING they deem scary or suspicious– which seems to be just about everything.”

    Are we tired of drawing parallels to totalitarian regimes from the past yet? Because that certainly sounds like familiar territory once again.

  7. “if he was agitated, it was probably because he got tired of being questioned”

    Thank god, a bit of common sense from a police officer. That line was so refreshing to read.

  8. If you can read Italian, this is a newspaper’s article with pretty much the same informations and a few more details on some specific facts:

    For example, the woman’s statement: she reported him because “he says he’s a photographer but when I asked him what review he worked for he mumbled and couldn’t answer me. Moreover, he frequently visited Iran and Europe in the last years.”

    According to Mr. Fazel, this woman wanted to know everything: he says she asked about his mother, his father, how they met, when did they come to the states, how long did he lived there, if he ever went back to Iran, what he liked in Sacramento (her city), etc. etc. until he got tired and told her he wanted to sleep. So, next time you seat beside a nosy woman, be advised: you can choose between your privacy and being reported as a potential terrorist.

  9. Presumably he learned this woman’s name? She should be put on a list herself. Perhaps the PBB (Paranoid Busybody Bitches) list.

    Seriously, there should be a mechanism to expose people who endanger others because they’re just too scared to live.

  10. Remember, it’s not paranoia if it’s goverment sponsored!

    Next time he can claim being a papparazzi looking for the next hot Paris photo and all doors and underwear will his for the taking.

  11. @#17 – Teapunk, I don’t know why you need to import a foreign example of a ‘Society of Suspicion’. America has a rich history of its own on that front.

    “I have here in my hand a list of names …”

  12. This is so sad on so many levels and I really feel for this guy. It is a perfect example of how the ‘War on Terror’ has become the ‘War on the Unusual’.

    1) When you ask untrained citizens to do surveillance, you get garbage results. Our government’s urging people to report ‘the unusual’ is the first problem.

    2) Once law enforcement was tipped off, they were rightly doing their jobs to question Mr. Fazel. It is questionable about their right to detain him though.

    3) Once he was determined to be not a terrorist and not a criminal, the matter should be dropped. Now he is marked until the end of our ‘War on Terror’. His frustration is immediately assumed to be ‘evasiveness’.

    Why? Because he wouldn’t be on the list if he had been telling the truth. Sounds like the movie Brazil to me. Everyone passes the buck. No one is willing to use their brains to clear this man because of the infinitesimal chance that it will bite them in the ass. This is exactly the Kafka-eske life that a free society should ensure never happens!

    4) How can he be refused entry to state capitols? Even convicted criminals can visit once their time is served. Isn’t there a guarantee of public access to our government? Can’t he pursue redress here? The worst part is that the guards know he is just ‘odd’ but still ‘follow orders’.

    IANAL but I this is total BS.

  13. As someone who has done some mail-based art in the past (and potentially would again) I find this pretty worrisome. Granted, I don’t think anyone would confuse me for a terrorist (though I am a Semite), the intolerance for any deviation from “normalcy” makes even the most innocuous goof not sponsored and defended by corporate interests (and even some that are, like the ATHF Lite-Brite hack in Boston) suddenly grounds for overreaction.

    It’s blackly funny that these sort of things become hot-buttons a few years after I indulge in them. When Columbine happened everyone reminded me that in high school I could be found in a black overcoat almost year-round. Had I still been in school in 1999 no doubt I’d have been hauled down to the guidance counselor’s office and scrutinized until I wanted to shoot up my school.

  14. If EVERYONE informs on EVERYONE ELSE, perhaps this problem will go away.

    What use is a no-fly list with several hundred million names?

    Get out there and make yourself free: rat on ten of your neighbours today!

  15. #5: Yes, “The Government” stole the election. Way to go.

    #6: So what? They didn’t make the woman sitting next to Mr. Fazel ignorant, did they?

    #7: So…if I choose not to suffer the company of fools, I’m uncivilized? I don’t think do.

    I’m disturbed by the idea that a government’s role is to improve people. Where, exactly, are you going to find the paragons of virtue needed to run such a government? Who gets to decide what a “failing” is?

  16. Iwood, no offense but that’s a pretty silly rebuttal of M.Mitchell and Eh.

    Come on, can you believe that some anti-terrorist types actually decided to take this woman seriously. She took a picture of a guy while he was sleeping, for christ’s sake, that ought to rate a lot higher on the creepy scale than him wanting to take a picture of every state capitol!

    Are they being taught to ignore all common sense in order to “cast a wider net”? Because I think I’d prefer our cops to have the skills and training to actually analyze whether or not a person is being alarmist or ignorant and parse through possible risks, thank you very much, instead of wasting precious energy and resources by responding to every tip from a random stranger with “CODE RED ALERT!”

  17. Takuan’s idea is pretty much the only workable solution other than a boycott (which BB readers have loudly rejected.) But you should start by ratting yourself out, just to be fair.

  18. You don’t have to land on any mysterious ‘lists’ to attract this kind of security grief. As an Australian whose family emigrated from Iran when I was 11 months old, I’ve got a benign and well-travelled Australian passport, and everybody loves laid-back Australians, right?

    Well, thanks to my Iranian surname, my place of birth being listed as “Shiraz” and my vague ethnic appearance, I’ve:

  19. been denied a Macedonian tourist visa because the ambassador didn’t believe I was a “tourist”;
  20. been “randomly selected” for extra security screening or explosives testing at 26 of the 27 airports I’ve been through since 9/11; and
  21. been held for questioning at most border crossings for half an hour or so. Border officials’ smiles and jokes about kangaroos that usually greet the sighting of my Australian passport evaporate after glimpsing my last name and place of birth. This is followed by escorts to questioning rooms and even a strip search or two.
  22. Shamefully I’m not spared this grief upon returning home … Australian immigration officials seem to love questioning me about every day of my extended travels whenever I come back to my own country.

    Interestingly, wearing a Fedora like this seems to net me about 80% less hassle. Security officials must assume that terrorists don’t like early 20th Century headgear. I discovered this by accident, but my well-worn fedora is now the second most important part of my travel kit, behind my passport.


    PS: Oh, and a note to any blonde women out there: don’t walk behind ethnic men in airport security lines. Most of the time when I’m blatantly racially profiled for a ‘random’ screening, officials will also pull out the next blonde woman in the queue behind me in vain attempt to show that they don’t discriminate. It’s usually quite laughable.

  23. Yes, as a matter of fact! I have to remove my hat at passport control, though as long as I present at the desk with my hat on, a big smile and an over-the-top “G’day!” I figure its work has been done. About fifty percent of security officials will make me take off the hat when passing through a metal detector, even if I haven’t set off the beep.

  24. I have a friend who took much delight in doffing his stetson after “security checks” and making a show of demonstrating nothing was in it. The guards were always embarrassed since none of them ever thought to check until invited.

    Doesn’t do it any more since no one is smiling these days. Still has a fair percentage that don’t look in the hat.

    So, a cowboy hat works, a fedora works, …what else works?

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