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Eye On Olympia

The bizarre post-911 saga of a capitol-loving tourist…

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the blog boingboing, “A Directory of Wonderful Things.” (Among the many recent offerings: “Little people concealed in hockey bags fleece Swedish bus passengers.”)

Today, the website notes this cautionary tale from the New York Times: How the quest of an American citizen named Ramak Fazel to photograph all the state capitols and send postcards from each has apparently landed him on terrorist watch lists. In a recent interview, the paper notes, the 42-year-old photographer

exuded the weariness of a frequent flier, having arrived the afternoon before at Newark Liberty Airport, where he was delayed for nearly three hours while United States Customs and Border Protection agents questioned him about the purpose of his trip, searched his baggage and photocopied the pages of his personal agenda.

He started his low-budget quest 18 months ago, the paper reports, setting out with an old Rolleiflex and a Chevy van, sleeping in Wal-Mart parking lots and showering at YMCAs as he documented one state capitol after another.

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.

…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.

and his seemingly all-American tourist road trip kept getting more disconcerting:

But in Jackson, Miss., his journey took its bizarre twist. One night, as he sat in his van, a beam of light pierced his reverie. He heard his name over a loudspeaker and a command to step out of the vehicle with his hands held high.

Suddenly, Mr. Fazel said, he was forced to the ground, face to the concrete, and handcuffed by a city police officer. His vehicle was searched, and when the officers determined that nothing was amiss, Mr. Fazel was ordered to leave the parking lot and continue down the road.

He said the officers told him that they had received a report that he was aiming an automatic weapon at passing traffic.

As Mr. Fazel continued his travels, he slowly began to perceive that he was on some kind of watch list. In Atlanta he was prohibited from entering the Capitol, he said, even as others did. In Columbia, S.C., he was questioned on the grounds of the Capitol by a police officer who mentioned that he knew Mr. Fazel lived in Italy.

On the morning of Oct. 3, he entered the Maryland Capitol in Annapolis, where he presented identification and signed his name on a visitors’ sheet. A guard asked him to wait.

Suddenly, Mr. Fazel said, he was handcuffed and rushed through corridors into a police station, where a man he later learned was a member of the Maryland Joint Terrorism Task Force with the F.B.I. started speaking to him in Farsi.


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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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