As national treasures go the usual suspects usually wear labels that mark them off as such, like the burgundy-brown highway signs that order them as Places To See on vacation itineraries: The Grand Canyon, the Washington Mall, Monticello, Graceland. But some of the greatest treasures are unmarked. They're not America idealized but America raw and real, everyday places we tread without really seeing because they're designed for utility rather than awe: U.S. 1, the Great Plains, any state fair you can think of, even the obliterating, efficient dullness of the interstate system. Imagine yourself without those commonplaces for a moment. Their stature would change from unremarkable to monumental, like the twin towers. With their "immense, fraught blankness extending above," as the writer Ian Frazier put it recently, they have been more memorable in their absence than they ever were in their existence.
Near the top of my list of unsung treasures is the New York subway. I rode it to school and work for seven years in the 1980s. That was when the train schedule paid daily homage to catalepsy, when the Times Square station was the city's version of an ambient septic tank and Grand Central station a rats' resort, when underground thieves competed with dreadlocked steel drummers for our entertainment dollars, when graffiti was more interesting than the newest art on the Museum of Modern Art's top floor, when the true membership of the United Nations became the ridership of the Number 7 line, the one former Atlanta Braves pitcher and imbecile emeritus John Rocker famously encapsulated for Sports Illustrated in 1999: "Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you're (riding through) Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing."
For a bigot, maybe. For the rest of us Beirutis, it was exhilaration central. Don't get me wrong. I despised the subway as every New Yorker was required to back then, but also secretly loved it for its flaws and blessed its coarse efficiency. No school-marmish no-eating rules, as in the Washington subway, no dainty schedules as with Paris' last metro at 12:45 a.m. It is the first place I want to be when I return to the city. Riding it is like riding inside America's veins. It doesn't get closer to the nation's pulse and dynamism. Walt Whitman would have dedicated his "Leaves of Grass" to it had he ridden it. But this is not Whitman's America anymore, is it?
"Security measures" are the all-purpose scouts of the police state, and in one of the most asinine displays of post 9/11 hysteria, New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority last January proposed banning photography on the subway and city buses. The questioning by police of people taking innocuous photographs of landmarks from bridges to federal office buildings is verging on the routine, but outright bans of photography or filming in public venues are rare, and in New York City, unheard of. No New Yorker would tolerate them. Times are changing, the policing fanatics love to say. This is their time, their reign.
What next, banning photography at the Hoover Dam or in airport arrival lounges, on interstates or at ballparks or popular national parks, because terrorists can "case" those places for vulnerabilities? Let them. Freedom is by definition vulnerable, but it is also a muscle of national identity: It is only as strong as our willingness to exercise it. Suppress it, and it'll atrophy worse than any bombing could harm it. To take a picture in a public place without having to give explanations is an act of freedom as basic as breathing, chatting, ambling down a street. It is nowhere near a privilege, but one of those rights being sacrificed to fear's profiteers.
A popular groundswell forced the Transit Authority to shelve the ban in May. That's New York activism for you. The victory was short-lived and turned on its head. Last week the Transit Authority awarded Lockheed Martin a $200 million contract to wire the subway with surveillance cameras, making a policing Truman Show out of every one of the city's 4 million daily riders. London's 1,800 cameras in its subways (and 4,200 cameras above ground) have been doing it to Londoners for years, with obvious uselessness against terrorism. Still, New York's folly and Lockheed Martin's fear-marketing will probably intensify an already pronounced national addiction to surveillance cameras.
And with every new policing lens aimed at public venues, that other national treasure -- the right to be left alone, unobserved, unsupervised, unsuspected by police presumptions -- becomes one more fraught blankness filling in for the fainthearted and the submissive.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 News-Journal Corporation