Left: Ohio State House building; photo by historymike
(Columbus, OH) "Hi. May I ask what you are doing?"
These were the first words the state trooper with the stiff-brimmed hat said to me as I stood on the sidewalk outside the capitol building to snap some photos.
I always have to self-censor to prevent myself from saying something combative, like "why the hell should you care? I'm on public property!"
I instead decided that it would be better to avoid getting hauled into a police station for being too "smart," and informed the officer that I was taking photographs of the building.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
I explained that I lived in Toledo, and kept taking photos.
"Is that a very long trip?" he asked.
Playing along, I mentioned it was about three hours, counting morning rush hour traffic.
"What brings you to Columbus?" he continued. By this time I was beginning to get irritated; I knew that I had been singled out as a suspicious character, and I was beginning to resent that it is somehow "suspicious" to be a dopey tourist taking pictures of state icons.
Still, the thought of having to call to Toledo for bail money kept me in check.
"I was down here for some academic business, and I decided to add to my collection of stock photos of Columbus landmarks," I said, letting my camera hang from my neck. I was waiting for the dreaded "I.D. please" comment when the officer reminded me to be careful when I was near the High Street curb.
"Cars drive by real fast here," he said. "Have a nice day."
The officer continued to watch as I circled the building, and a needless confrontation over individual liberties was avoided.
The entire exchange took less than 90 seconds, and yet I wondered if my name and license plate were entered into a database (I parked at a meter across the street). Perhaps the same information was passed along to the Department of Homeland Security.
At no time was I really inconvenienced, and the questions I was asked seemed harmless enough. Yet I was saddened that the innocent days of tourists freely visiting American government facilities have long since disappeared.
I grew up believing in the dream of American exceptionalism, and even though events such as Watergate, Vietnam, and the current war in Iraq have caused me to become a bit cynical, there is a part of me that still wants to believe that the United States - though imperfect - offers the best model for world to emulate.
Being seen as a suspicious person in the eyes of government representatives, though, caused me to recognize the state of fear, or fear-state, into which we have descended.
I walked back to my car just a little more cynical than I was before I arrived in Columbus, and I could not help but look in my rearview to see if I was being followed.
No one was there, I think.