Every day diplomacy

Note: we are receiving many insightful comments on this article from folks who aren’t signing the comments using their real names. We are delighted to have your comments, especially from first-time visitors, but in the interest of transparency and accountability, we do require you to sign your posts with your real name. Thanks. The editors.

By Joel L. Merchant

Countries, like people, make friends with others one at a time. This is a story of one failure. In fairness to an unknown visitor to our country, imagine yourself in his place. The scene is on a recent Amtrak trip between New York City and Boston. The conductor collects tickets, requests identification, folds destination stubs into seatbacks, moves on to other cars. An older man across the aisle, traveling alone, shows his passport. It is clear from their conversation he doesn’t know English.

After decades as a frequent traveler, I have thousands of pictures — scenery, buildings, people, architecture, from around the world. Today the train passes a lovely stretch of Connecticut shore, tidal marshes, nesting ospreys, the Long Island Sound. What little attention I pay as the visitor takes pictures, is that I’m impressed with his equipment. He and I, unknown to each other, are members of a picture-taking culture, fellow citizens of a show-and-tell world. I wonder if his will join the thousands on YouTube. I imagine, after his return home, how many friends he will impress with stories and pictures of this mild, early autumn, Saturday morning journey along the New England shoreline.

The train is a half hour west of New Haven when the conductor, having finished her original rounds, reappears. She moves down the aisle, looks, stops between our seats, faces the person taking pictures. “Sir, in the interest of national security, we do not allow pictures to be taken of or from this train.” He starts, “I…….” but, without English, his response trails off into silence. The conductor, speaking louder, forcefully: “Sir, I will confiscate that camera if you don’t put it away.” Again, little response. “Sir, this is a security matter! We cannot allow pictures.” She turns away abruptly and, as she moves down the aisle, calls over her shoulder, in a very loud voice, “Put. It. Away!” He packs his camera.

Within a minute after our arrival in New Haven, two armed police officers entered the car, approached my neighbor’s seat. “Sir, we’re removing you from this train.” “I….;” “I……” “Sir, you have breached security regulations. We must remove you from this train.” “I…,” “I…..” “Sir, we are not going to delay this train because of you. You will get off, or we will remove you physically.” “I…..”

Nearby passengers stir. One says, “It’s obvious he doesn’t speak English. There are people here who speak more than one language. Perhaps we can help.” Different ones ask about the traveler’s language; learn he speaks Japanese. For me, a sudden flash of memory — a student at International Christian University in Japan, I took countless pictures without arousing suspicion.

The police speak through the interpreter, with the impatience of authority. “The conductor asked this man three times to discontinue. We must remove him from the train.” The traveler hears the translation, is befuddled. Hidden beneath the commotion is a cross-cultural drama. With the appearance of police officers, this quiet visitor is embarrassed to find he is the center of attention. The officers explain, “After we remove him from the train, when we are through our investigation, we will put him on the next train.” The woman translates. The passenger replies, “I’m meeting relatives in Boston. They cannot be reached by phone. They expect me and will be worried when I do not arrive on schedule.” “Our task,” the police repeat, “is to remove you from this train. If necessary, we will do so by force. After we have finished the investigation, we’ll put you on another train.” The woman translates. The traveler gathers his belongings and departs.

My earlier suggestion that you imagine being in his place leaves you free to respond and draw your conclusions. Remember: you’ve been removed from the train, are being interrogated, perhaps having your equipment confiscated; while I continue to do what I take for granted – traveling unimpeded, on to Providence.

The more I replay the scene, the more troublesome it is. It is the stuff of nightmares. Relations between people and countries lie at the heart of the issue. The abstract terms that inform political and social debate appear, as if in person, unexpectedly, near enough to hear, touch, feel. Taking no position is not an option. As an educator, I would prepare and deliver a lecture on how others perceive America in the world community, then seek an audience. I’ll spare you. But — I just watched armed police officers remove a visitor from the train for taking pictures. I don’t understand this. I’m disturbed – no, shaken – to bear witness to these events. Other passengers react with surprise and anger. “Since when is it illegal to take pictures?” “Nobody’s ever bothered me about it.” “Is the only photography allowed from the space station and Google Earth? These people take pictures of everything, including my house, without my permission, and they’re instantly available on the internet.” An older traveler reflected, “I witnessed this personally in police states during the war in Europe.”

In The Terror Presidency, Jack Goldsmith says it is right for a country to meet a threat in a way that keeps us safe, but must also “minimize unnecessary intrusion on …life, liberty and property…. and all those who are enjoying them with us.” One passenger asked, “Would someone please explain the threat posed by taking pictures from the train?”

In Matt Stoller’s review of A Tragic Legacy, he says the current administration has “transformed the way (people) speak about our country and its role in the world.” The good-versus-evil mentality has “altered the political system of our country” and our relationship with the rest of the world – in ways which are “inappropriate for a modern power in a time of global turmoil.”

It doesn’t take more than five minutes, in any airport in this country, before I hear the loudspeaker, “The current terror threat is elevated.” We hear “terror” endlessly – traveling, at home, on television, in the news. Recent political campaigns have reminded – no, badgered – us, to be very afraid. What did Franklin Roosevelt say, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Terror. Paranoia. We can no longer differentiate between terrors. Is this our generation’s enlightened contribution to American culture?

Watching police escort a visitor off the train, I felt anger, not comfort. This action was beyond irritating. It is intolerable, unacceptable. If it bothered me, it paled in comparison to the way it inconvenienced, and will long trouble, this visitor to our country. We disrupted his travel plans and family reunion. Even greater than the psychological damage we inflicted is the harm we’ve done to ourselves. We missed an opportunity to show kindness, to be ambassadors of goodwill. The visitor will return home. He will indeed impress many people – not with pleasant memories and pictures of a quiet morning trip along the New England coast, but with a story of being removed and detained by American police for taking pictures. Do we imagine we’ve gained anything because a single visitor returns home with stories of mistreatment?

We engage in diplomacy whenever we have contact with visitors or travel abroad ourselves. If we conduct ourselves poorly as daily ambassadors, it is no wonder our country suffers a tarnished relationship with the world.

Joel Merchant is a teacher, business consultant, and essayist. He is currently working on “The Other Side of Time; Letters to My Daughter” at a-reminiscence.

Comment Policy
Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted. We also ask that you limit your comments to no more than four comments per story per day.

  1. Kit Carlson

    I know it’s too late now, but I wonder what would have happened if all of the passengers had refused to let the police take the man off the train.

    An incident, surely, but who knows?

    Human history is full of official forces ganging up on one person, of bystanders watching, shaking their heads, but refusing to halt what is going on. It happened to Jesus, it happened to the kid in Florida who got tased.

    What if we stopped standing by and watching?

  2. John-Julian,OJN

    The other option would always be to go with him, to be with him, to stand by him, not to leave him to be alone, to demonstrate one’s solidarity with him.

    After all, isn’t that precisely the description of the Incarnation?

  3. garydasein

    The United States has lost a lot of tourism since 9/11 and will continue to do so. This is no way to treat a tourist!

    Ironically, the government has a new commericial inviting people to come visit the US with photos of Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. America’s image as a tourist destination doesn’t seem important to the government these days.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  4. RefManTim

    Andrew Sullivan has been running a series of blog entries on “America the Unfriendly” detailing the tribulations now imposed in the name of security: http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/11/america-the-unf.html; http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/11/america-the-u-1.html; http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/11/america-the-u-2.html; http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/11/america-the-u-3.html; http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/11/america-the-u-4.html.

    Foreign tourism in the U.S. is taking a dive, bigtime, thanks to the reports visitors take home.

    Tim Balch

  5. I frequently ride the train between Baltimore and NYC and take many pictures, often while sitting and talking with the conductor in the cafe car! This is obsurd. It is not illegal to take pictures on or out of the train. Over-zealous condutor at minimum.

    Mark Barry

  6. Dear commenters,

    We are receiving lots of comments on this posting from first time visitors. Can I call your attention to the fact that in the interest of transparency and accountability, we require commenters to sign their comments with their real names. Thanks.

    The editors.

  7. John B. Chilton

    An American colleague of mine who was born in Iran went to the Iranian Consulate in Dubai to arrange for visas for he and his family to visit Iran. His wife and 14 year old daughter waited in the car. The daughter took some photos of the outside the consulate.

    The Iranian guards took offense and they all ended up at Dubai Police HQ. After several tense hours the photos were deleted from the digital camera and they were let go.

    Frankly, my guess is in most of these cases it’s overzealousness driven by commitment to the task of safety combined with a lack of skill in exercising discretion. There are two kinds of errors that can be made: the other is failure to act when someone does mean to harm the public. Errors cannot be eliminated, only minimized and balanced.

  8. dbhuff

    I wrote Amtrak, I was so offended at this. Here’s their reply, I hope this guy got a good lawyer… I also asked for a complete list of security regulations but did not receive that.

    Dear Amtrak Customer,

    Thank you for your inquiry.

    Photography is allowed onboard the train, and passengers are permitted to take pictures.

    We hope this information will be helpful.



    Customer Service

  9. The blame for this ridiculous incident rests on the shoulders of an incompetent Amtrak employee. Amtrak allows pictures from the train. Had the conductor carried out her responsibilities in accordance with Amtrak standards, this event would never have happened. This ignorant/arrogant Amtrak employee is solely responsible for what happened on that train and she should be fired. As usual,the illogical, blame America first crowd has taken the opportunity to blame the government for the actions of one out of control conductor. Her conduct is reprehensible, don’t direct the subject away from the point by including your dislike for America.

    Frank Cassman

    Kansas City

  10. Gil Rozenblatt

    Having just returned from a backpacking trip around New Zealand And Australia I can attest to the worlds disgust with us. This incident with the Amtrak passenger is a sad example of how terrorism won and took over our country.

  11. gallegoscot

    Dear Mr. Cassman,

    It’s not really Blame America First. Have you travelled lately? Or even strolled downtown somewhere? I live in Washington, DC near the US Capitol. I see checkpoints set up to impress tourists in August when there aren’t any congressmen to protect. I’ve been harrassed for having the gaul to ride my bike on a street by the Capitol Police (they wanted me to walk it for two blocks because I wasn’t a Congressional Staffmember). I’ve seen numerous more overreactions like this. I love this country, but lately I have been embarrassed by this type of boarish behavior.


    George Bouza

    Washington, DC

  12. The Amtrack employee is not solely responsible. The police officers should have responded to the complaint by simply saying “taking pictures is not a crime under US law, so leave us alone. We have real criminals to catch!”

  13. Jordan Weber-Flink

    Frank –

    An 8 year old boy named Peter is walking to school when he notices a doberman behind a chain link fence. Playing with fire, he decides to poke the dog with a stick from across the safety of the fence. The dog barks and its owner comes out. The owner asks Peter not to poke his dog with a stick, and in return he gives him a dollar.

    Peter, happy to have his dollar, comes back the next day and pokes the dog with another stick. Again the owner comes out and asks the boy not to do so, and gives him another dollar.

    On the third day, the boy pokes his stick harder, and the owner repeats his performance but this time gives him two dollars.

    This continues for several weeks until, mad with pain and irritation, the dog rushes up to the fence and knocks it down, then bites Peter’s hand very hard.

    Crying, the boy runs home to his parents, who explain that while they are sorry the dog bit him, it’s his own fault for provoking the dangerous animal just to get money.

    The boy, who is obviously very stupid, goes on the Bill O’Reilly show and calls his parents traitors who belong to the Blame Peter First crowd. He then goes to the dog pound and starts torturing animals who didn’t bite him.

    What is the moral of the story? Sometimes blaming American foreign policy for the anger and resentment of its victims are justified. But I doubt you’ll agree with me; you’ll probably argue that homeland security should have killed the dog and deported the owner, then given all of his money to Peter.

  14. Jeff Brown

    I was in Boston on this past 4th of July, heading to the Pop go the Fourth celebration. I was on a platform at one of the outlying T stops trying to take a photo of my father and my two daughters as the train pull in to the stop. A security guard admonished me instantly telling me photos are prohibited on T property. I go to Europe and Asia all the time and love to take photos of similar scenery, nobody cares over there, but here we are scared to death someone might be casing it for bad reasons. Imagine in Boston to celebrate the independence of our country and liberty and yet we live scared. The last few lines of the national anthem should be changed to: “the land of the formerly free and the home of the fearful”!

    Jeff Brown


  15. As part of my job, I am often involved in training conductors and engineers. The attitude of conductor you observed is not typical. There is no law or rules against taking photographs on board trains, so long as doing so it doesn’t interfere with the crew or other passengers.

    The writer should have asked for and written down the conductor’s name and badge number as well as those of the police and spoken to an Amtrak manager noting the time, date, and train number of the incident. Had the writer made as much effect to follow up with Amtrak as he did to write this article, it is certain that the conductor involved would have been set straight.

    Many railroad employee and managers enjoy taking photographs themselves and they don’t take violations of citizens’ rights to do so lightly and feel very strongly about it. If passengers fail to speak up, we all suffer for it and nothing gets corrected. If the writer would post the time and date of the incident as well as which train he was on, I am sure there are Amtrak managers who would investigate this unfortunate occurrence.

  16. I really like what John-Julian said. There are times when we have to get up, and go with the downtrodden to model the Incarnate Christ.

    As a frequent Amtrak rider, this appalls me, esp. because it happened to someone who could not speak English.

    And of course, how far have we fallen when Police believe they can do this simply for someone taking PHOTOGRAPHS.

    This reminds me so much of the former Soviet Union with their handlers and camera confiscations!

    –Terry Hall

  17. Robert Morton

    I have recently started referring to the country to the south of us as the “PSA” – “Paranoid States of America”. This story supports this view. Seems to me that the terrorists have won.

  18. rippie

    I grew up in Manhattan and saw the Towers go up. I have lived in Boston for over 20 years now. I was a radio writer when they “came down” and spent the next two days feeding updates to my radio presenters around the world every 15 minutes of so from an out-of-state visit. I was the first person to debark my flight back into Boston on one of the very first planes to fly in. Walking off the the jetway into the terminal I was greeted by an MP and State Trooper in full riot gear, and the muzzles of two automatic rifles aimed at my chest. AFTER the flight was over. In the subsequent years, I have grown to loathe flying. But it does not end there: I have been completely searched just to get onto the subway system here in Boston. Bags, pat-down, the works. I’ve been patted down to get onto Amtrak.

    I’m a natural born citizen, and completely unremarkable in my appearance as an American: white, brown hair, all my limbs, a couple extra pounds, clean, highly articulate and perfect American English.

    So, have the terrorists won? Yes. Do I feel safer now in my own country than I did exactly 6 years ago? No.

    Am I surprised that a Japanese (!) tourist was treated as he was?

    Sadly, no.

    David Lee, very angry American and Freedom of Speech activist, aka Rippie.


    I can’t imagine how the poor man must have felt. Amtrak obviously has no such policy and the police should have never removed the man from the train. New Jersey transit management actually tried to enforce a similar policy targeting trainspotters (there’s a likely bunch of terrorists) and claiming that the Patriot Act justified their actions. When asked by the judge where in the Patriot act this prohibition existed the NJT lawyer was at a loss.

    Mark Fisher

  20. I was a bit surprised by Terry Hall’s comment comparing this incident to restrictions on photography in the Soviet Union. My family traveled in the Soviet Union for 5 weeks in 1978 and came back with hundreds of photographs. Yes, as Americans we did have official “Intourist” handlers, but we also had a lot of time on our own. We were not allowed to take any photos of military sites, not that we were ever anywhere near any. We never had any problems taking photographs of whatever we wanted.

    In comparison, in America today people have been detained for taking pictures of buildings, bridges, airplanes, trains, and all manner of other things. Usually it is unclear what exactly is restricted or allowed so no one can know what kind of activities they might get in trouble for. The Soviet Union seemed quite free in comparison.

    –James Lick

  21. Amtrak and Metro North have policies about taking pictures of train equipment from outside the train in places like Grand Central but as stated, there are no rules about taking pictures from trains.

    As one commenter said, had the entire train car worked diplomatically to make this right, with both the conductor and police, it might have helped. And, had the author or someone else gotten off the train with the man and police it might have smoothed things some.

    This type of incident isn’t just the result of Bush fear politics, it’s also the result of ethnocentric, untraveled, and unworldly Americans who spend very little time outside of the United States and have no empathy for people who don’t speak English fluently or know the customs of our country.

    Lastly, I hope someone told his family in Boston what had happened.

    –Richard Wanderman

  22. Randy Saunders

    I do not believe this story to be true. If you require transparency, you need to get the dates, times, and train numbers. There was a review of the train logs for New Haven by the folks at railroad.net that was unable to identify a security delay matching this incident. Not to mention the official Amtrak policy allowing photography. They run a “best photo taken from an Amtrak train” contest. This is an example of liberal lying to enrage reasonable people and not something the Episcopal community should participate in.

    Editor’s note: Amtrak #2290, September 15, 2007, Acela express, the quiet car.

  23. It was nice to see this post joel. I came back from USA after spending 3 months in Philly & Pittsburgh. You have written my exact feelings, at times i was worried to take pictures cz. i am a Pakistani national and God knows what who will catch me for that.

    One of my friend took a our picture in the cabin United Airline flight to Dulles, and Flight Attendent was looking wierdly.

    i hope US Govt. learns that these small things throws away all the good things we see in America.


    Lahore, PK

  24. art_mauck

    My first reaction, after reading Randy Saunders’ yammerings about this being made-up liberal lying is anger.

    Then, after reflection, I just feel incredible sadness for him. I’m sure that even after being shown to be WRONG about this being a lie – I’m sure he’ll just turn around and say something else horribly offensive to anyone with a soul or a conscience.

    The real worry that I have is that not enough of us are willing to put people like this in their place. We’d rather agree with them to not be confrontational. We’d rather not be labled one of those “liberal liars”.

  25. I am dazzled by the stupidity of the Amtrak employee in this story. The willingness of a lot of probably-sincere people to run around acting like the Keystone Stasi is very disturbing. I now carry a printout of one’s rights to photograph (see http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm) in my camera bag. I have fortunately not had to use it. I also will be carrying a second memory card, which, if I’m hassled, I will be slipping discretely into the camera, so I can then show them how I’m formatting my memory card, see? After that, they’ll be happy and go away and I can keep my pictures. I’ll be sure to try to get them fired, too. (Okay, I’m not so good on the “suffering fools gladly” part, I admit.)

    As for “liberal liars,” all I can say is that Jesus was the liberal. Pilate was the conservative. Hey, I made my choice about who I liked better long ago.

  26. prozacula

    Wow. Randy Saunders really displayed the reason why America is in the shape it is in today.

    See, people like Randy enable this kind of behavior to happen more and more frequently. People like Randy can’t understand that our country is sliding into a fascist state, where fear of everyone, and instant obedience to those in power, is now the status quo. Personal privacy and freedom take a back seat to paranoia and fear in America now.

    When presented with the truth and actual evidence, people like Randy deny that it is true, and then paint it with the pejorative ‘liberal’ label. This is what neo-cons call anyone who doesn’t agree with them, including Republican Conservatives.

    Good luck America. Thanks for showing me one more good reason why I left and live in another country now. Don’t want to be there when they round up all the ‘liberals’ and do to them what people like Randy want them to finally do with everyone who disagrees with them – guantanamo bay!


    Jason Temple

  27. It happened again, this morning between Baltimore and NYC. A British gentleman was taking a picture out the window, of the Medowlands, a female conductor said ” Excuse me Sir, you can’t take pictures on the train, Homeland Security”. I’ve seen them take laptops from passengers, you never know when they’re on the train”.

    I was too tired to get involved at the time, foolishly. I am following up with Amtrak and request that they inform their employees.

    Mark Barry

Comments are closed.