Roshomon, Good Citizenship And Ethics: The Case Of The Concerned Stranger And The Indignant Father

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!”

—Robert Burns bystander-effectJeff Gates, a writer and adoptive father, contributed a thought-provoking column in the Washington Post’s Outlook section this weekend, describing what seemed to him to be a traumatic experience at Cape May. It begins…

“After my family arrives on the Cape May ferry for our annual vacation to the Jersey Shore, I take pictures of our two daughters on the ferry’s deck as we leave the harbor. I’ve been doing this since they were 3 and 4 years old. They are now 16 and 17. Each photo chronicles one year in the life of our family and our daughters’ growth into the beautiful young women they have become….On that first day of vacation, the sea was calm and the sky a brilliant blue. As I focused on the image in my camera’s viewfinder, the girls stood in their usual spot against the railing at the back of the boat. I was looking for just the right pose…Totally engaged with the scene in front of me, I jumped when a man came up beside me and said to my daughters: “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you were okay.”

He goes on:

“It took me a moment to figure out what he meant, but then it hit me: He thought I might be exploiting the girls, taking questionable photos for one of those “Exotic Beauties Want to Meet You!” Web sites or something just as unseemly. When I explained to my daughters what he was talking about, they were understandably confused. I told the man I was their father. He quickly apologized and turned away. But that perfect moment was ruined, and our annual photo shoot was over.”

Many of us might laugh off the experience as a funny anecdote, but not Gates, and not his daughters. He is Caucasian and they are both of Chinese heritage, having been adopted as infants in China by Gates and his wife. He obsessed about the incident for a while, and worked up sufficient indignation to track down the man and confront him, saying “Excuse me, sir, but you just embarrassed me in front of my children and strangers. And what you said was racist.”

The man did not apologize, other some equivalent of the non-apologetic, “I’m sorry I upset you.” He explained that he worked for the Department of Homeland Security, and that seeing a middle aged white man taking photos of two nubile Asian girls as they hugged for 15 minutes set off his ethics alarms.

“I see,” writes Gates. who is a professional photographer.  “So we didn’t fit the mold of what he considered a typical American family, and he thought my picture-taking was excessive, possibly depraved. How long should family snapshots take?”  He concludes, bitterly,

“The world and its suspicions had intruded on our family’s vacation as we crossed Delaware Bay. Racial profiling became personal that day. And while our experience was minimal compared with the constant profiling experienced by others, it left a repugnant taste in my mouth. Homeland Security instructs Americans: “If you see something, say something.” But at what point do our instincts compel us to act? And when does our fear of getting involved stop us? What causes someone to perceive one thing when an entirely different thing is happening?”

Let me enlighten Jeff, and perhaps unburden his mind:

  • He was not the victim of racial profiling.
  • One’s instincts should compel one to act when there is a significant chance that not acting will allow something harmful and preventable to happen to another human being.
  • “When does our fear of getting involved stop us?” When we care more about ourselves, embarrassment, confrontation, the consequences of being wrong or being publicly criticized in the Washington Post for being responsible and proactive than we do about preventing possible harm to strangers.
  • We “perceive one thing when an entirely different thing is happening” all the time, indeed, more often than not. If we allow that to be an excuse to avoid positive interactions with what we see, then I have no doubts that the net effect will be more human misery and catastrophe than we have now. The Roshomon problem is with us always, especially in the field of ethics: it is very common for the same conduct to be unethical from the perspective of one individual, ethical from another’s, and ambiguous from the viewpoint of objective onlookers. The answer to any Roshomon ethics question is “it depends,” and in weighing the various options, the primary consideration is which approach will have the most damaging consequences if you choose wrong.

In the case of the misconstrued photo session, that’s an easy call, isn’t it? If, in fact, this had been the case of a man with power over two young women forcing them to participate in some form of pornographic activities against their wills, or were victims of sex trafficking, the Homeland Security employee’s intervention might have prevented an ongoing crime. The consequences of being wrong, with a somewhat less-easily offended father, would be momentary embarrassment for the intervenor, an amusing story to tell around the dinner table for the family, and nothing else. A rational reaction by Gates would have been  to admire the willingness of a stranger, security professional or not (he may not have really been a government employee, and only making that claim to avoid a nastier confrontation with Gates), to make an effort to investigate where he felt investigation was called for, and be grateful for it. Essentially Gates is demanding that the man be a mind-reader, or that the rule be that in cases where conduct one observes is ambiguous, and may be sinister, the default analysis always be to assume the benign, and do nothing. That approach is irresponsible, dangerous and cowardly. It is at the root of the passive bystander problem, a frequent topic here. We should all be proactive: not paranoid, hysterical or seeing monsters around every corner, but alert and ready to take action to prevent harm if there is good reason to believe that harm may occur. A website that is mostly concerned with battling illegal police efforts to stop citizens from filming arrests takes another view of the incident, undoubtedly influenced by its own Roshomon angle, which comes complete with a jaundiced eye:

“..That still wasn’t enough reason for the stranger to intervene. However, the stranger later claimed to work for the Department of Homeland Security, which means he is trained to view anybody with a camera as a suspected criminal. He later told Gates that he found him suspicious because he had been taking photos of his daughters hugging for 15 minutes. But Gates has been taking photos of his daughters for more than a decade on the family annual retreat to Cape May…so he obviously wanted to take the time to snap the perfect shot.”

The problems with this analysis are evident, aren’t they? :

1. The author, Carlos Miller, is hostile to Homeland Security, which does not “view anybody with a camera as a suspected criminal,” and did not in this case.

2. No, the man was suspicious because he saw a white man taking what could have been sexually provocative photos of  two Asian women who appeared under-age. If he knew they were Gates’ daughters, he wouldn’t have been alarmed.

3. “But Gates has been taking photos of his daughters for more than a decade on the family annual retreat to Cape May as you can see in the above collage, so he obviously wanted to take the time to snap the perfect shot.” It’s obvious now, because Miller read it in the Post. See what he did there? He adopted Gates’s point of view to condemn that actions of the man, who had no way to know about the photographer’s vacation traditions. This is unfair, and an ethics foul.

But Miller sees no reason to be fair to Homeland Security, so he isn’t. I salute that unnamed intervenor, and suggest that Jeff Gates stop looking for opportunities to regard himself and his daughters as victims. We all have an obligation to look out for each other, and along with that comes an obligation to be understanding, forgiving and to extend the benefit of the doubt when a well-considered intervention is based on seeing a situation from the wrong perspective. Gates’ correct and ethical response to the man, after explaining what was going on, should have been, “Thank you for looking out for my girls.”

UPDATE: Reason has weighed in, not surprisingly, against the man who dared to ask a question, because the folks at Reason are more suspicious of the government than this government employee was suspicious of the photo session, pronouncing his suspicions, “absurd.” Of course, the Reason reporters weren’t there, so they have no idea whether the instincts of the man were absurd or not. They were mistaken, however. And if he had been right, with the exact same facts? Would his gut feelings still have been absurd? Of course. Absurd, but correct!

____________________

Facts: Washington Post

Source: PINAC

70 thoughts on “Roshomon, Good Citizenship And Ethics: The Case Of The Concerned Stranger And The Indignant Father

  1. Those who would object out-of-hand to the minor inconvenience of a police officer (or other official) legitimately questioning their objectively suspicious actions are usually the first to cry, “You should have done something!” when unchallenged mischief results in real harm. We train police officers to investigate behavior that does not fit the time, the place, or the circumstances. It is one of the primary tasks that police perform to maintain order and prevent criminal activity. Of course, officers need to be tactful and courteous, as well as tactical and careful, but checking out things that don’t look right is just about “job one.”

  2. I have mixed feelings about this. As a photographer I am conscious of the stir this art can have, and I also know that 99.999% of what I photograph is unquestionable and would get someone who raised a question looked at funny himself.

    As someone who’s strong on the First Amendment and doesn’t trust the current administration’s handling of law enforcement issues, I don’t like what happened here. Granted, the reader knows from the get-go this was a benign situation, and maybe the author is leaving details out, but all the same, it feels “off” to me. This guy was watching what went on for 15 minutes and didn’t hear the girls say “dad” or “ok, dad” once? He didn’t identify himself as law enforcement from the get-go? For that matter, why didn’t the author spot him watching after 15 minutes and challenge him “is there a problem here?” Why didn’t he tell him to mind his own damn business when the guy asked if everything was all right, or tell him “either show me a badge or get stepping?”

    You correctly pointed out that maybe the busybody was lying, thinking that unless he floated some excuse dad was going to lay him out, and I’d have had no problem with dad laying him out, for sticking his nose where it didn’t belong and embarassing him in front of his family.

    “If you see something, say something” should go as far as reporting abandoned baggage or something else that could be a bomb, obvious activity like screaming next door, or something else that could result in injury. I don’t believe it extends to photography, unless it’s of national-security related things. This whole thing also smacks of NJ’s clumsy attempts in 2011 and 2012 to float legislation (in reaction to creepy behavior) that would make it illegal to photograph or videotape children other than one’s own without parental consent, which was overbroad, hard to enforce, and had the potential to make instant criminals out of anyone taking family pictures on a crowded boardwalk or at a well-attended community event. The 2011 bill never made it out of committee, my quick research didn’t turn up anything on the fate of the 2012 bill. I’d hate to think that my picture of marching Princeton reenactors would be a crime simply because someone else’s kid was in the background of the shot.

    Citizens have a right to go about their normal, benign activity without being harassed by gray-area officials and busybodies who think they see something, particularly a victimless something, where there is nothing. Otherwise we are one step more down the path to tyranny.

    • Are you seriously saying that an official should have LESS reason to check than anyone else? Because in the situation as described, I think any responsible citizen should check. “Are you OK?” is hardly intrusive or “a step down the path to tyranny.” Obviously, if the girls had called the guy Dad, that would defuse any suspicion.

      And I’ve seen fathers behave creepily with daughters. I recall really getting the oogies when a professor of mine proudly showed a photo he had framed of his daughter, a photo he said he took. It was a seductive pose by a very attractive young woman in what looked like a man’s shirt, and nothing else. I can’t imagine a father taking such a photo, or framing it for his own use, but there it was. Ew.

      Re-read the post. If it doesn’t look like benign activity, then someone should check. As in this case.
      Frankly, the father’s over-reaction makes me wonder if he has a guilty conscience.

      • Frankly, the father’s over-reaction makes me wonder if he has a guilty conscience.
        *************
        That is exactly what I was thinking.

      • “Frankly, the father’s over-reaction makes me wonder if he has a guilty conscience.”

        What?! One could just as easily have said that his over-reaction was based upon the fact that he is type-cast as a pedophile for being out in public with his daughters. Your prejudice is showing, Jack.

        Who knows how many times busy-bodies have made such accusations? For me, I would not have put up with it.

        My response to the guy would have been: “I don’t know you, and if you do not stop talking to my UNDERAGE daughters without my permission, I am calling the cops.”

        The fact that the bystander may have had a defensible reason to think something does not mean that the father has to put up with such the ignorant bullshit.

        -Jut

        • Prejudice about what?

          The guy asked a question, and may have had good reason to do so. The disruption was minimal—nothing. And THIS of yours is just gibberish—The fact that the bystander may have had a defensible reason to think something does not mean that the father has to put up with such the ignorant bullshithuh? If he had a defensible reason, then obviously it wasn’t bullshit, was it?

          The father was wildly overreacting, because 1) he wanted to play race-victim, since everyone else is 2) he has a chip on his shoulder 3) he’s encountered jerkish treatment of his mixed race family before, and took it out on this guy unfairly 4) he’s a prima donna, and how dare someone disturb his art 5) he was getting aroused by his own daughters, and someone noticed. My personal favorites are 1 and 4, but no matter which, Dad was out of line, and the DHS guy was being responsible.

          • “The disruption was minimal—nothing.”

            You are right: it could have been worse.

            “If he had a defensible reason, then obviously it wasn’t bullshit, was it?”

            You caught me: he did not have a defensible reason for presuming, sand evidence, that there was something amiss. Not defensible at all.

            “The guy asked a question, and may have had good reason to do so.”

            What was the good reason again?

            I bet it has something to do with the fact that he was a man, and they were of a different race.

            -Jut

            • Oh, come on. Be serious:

              1.“The disruption was minimal—nothing.”
              You are right: it could have been worse.

              Anything is worse than nothing.

              2. You caught me: he did not have a defensible reason for presuming, sand evidence, that there was something amiss. Not defensible at all.

              How the hell do YOU know? He was there. If he thought there was reason for concern, you have nothing at all to counter that with. Based on his experience and judgment—that’s all. That’s enough.

              3. What was the good reason again?

              Based on his experience and what he observed, he thought there was an appreciable chance that this was a case where two minors were being forced or coerced into participating in illicit photos. The did not appear to be a family. The fact that the guy was wrong does not mean his reasoning wasn’t valid.

              4. I bet it has something to do with the fact that he was a man, and they were of a different race.

              No, it was several factors: 1) a white middle aged man and two much younger Asian teens 2) being posed touching each other 3) in a session that seems to be going on for a long time (15 minutes is long for any casual photograph) 4)with whatever X factor we haven’t been told about, since it is the father’s account—his demeanor, attitude, words, etc. I don’t think you can assume any unfair bias from what we know.

          • There seems to be spate of this kind of thing happening, people with mixed-race families, or adoptive parents, being questioned by strangers. Sometimes the police are called. The most recent incident I read of (on a blog) was a father taking his daughter out to the car, while the mother payed at the cash register at Walmart. The greeter took it upon herself to follow the father and child out to the car, while peppering the child with questions ‘Are you OK honey?’ She eventually called the police. After reading about a few of these incidents and the racial mix of the parent/child pairs targeted, it’s hard for me to believe that it’s not racially motivated.

            People can be very rude to parents of adopted children when they are not
            the same race as the parents and in the case of Asian adoptions people somehow feel free to ask really invasive questions.

            I was thinking 3, that it was one more incident or many.

          • The father was wildly overreacting, because 1) he wanted to play race-victim, since everyone else is 2) he has a chip on his shoulder 3) he’s encountered jerkish treatment of his mixed race family before, and took it out on this guy unfairly 4) he’s a prima donna, and how dare someone disturb his art 5) he was getting aroused by his own daughters, and someone noticed.

            I concur. The actions of the father are contradictory and irrational. While it is understandable that a father may over react privately when his family honor is insulted in some manner, this author took it one step further and submitted his private actions for public scrutiny, and they do not add up.

            For starters, he states that his daughter were upset, but doesn’t really explain why. Were they upset that there father was “accused” of being a predator, or were they upset that these predators exist? Both are valid reasons to be upset, but responsibility of the father is to discuss and set an example with how to cope emotionally with these realities. He fails at this.

            Instead he brooded about it to the point of randomly confronted the agent, likely off-duty and possibly on vacation himself, long after the incident occurred. He then expects perfect answers from a man caught off guard and trying to not provoke the individual of unknown stability who is confronting him over asking if his daughter’s were safe. He is upset that his perfect family moment was ruined, and then proudly interrupt’s the agent’s vacation as well.

            The father then goes on to state that he even understands the agent’s concern:

            > > “Yet part of me understood what he was seeing: Here was this middle-aged white guy taking lots of pictures of two beautiful, young Asian women.”

            Yet the father criticizes the agent’s blunt intrusion, suggesting an even more vague approach:

            > > “Even if he thought something inappropriate was taking place, he certainly could have approached us more gently: “What a beautiful family you have there,” he might have said to me. If the girls had … even looked distressed by his statement, then he might have had cause to question them.”

            The author acknowledges that his actions could have appeared creepy, yet suggests that a strange man approach two teenager girls and tell them they are “beautiful”. Such an approach would rightfully cause his daughters even more distress!

            That the father acted like an over-protective nincompoop in private could be forgiven. However, it frightens me that upon reflection, a professional writer could publish such contradictory statements, and believe that his irrational response was noble enough to be published as an example for everyone to follow.

            The situation boils down to a bystander intervening in an overabundance of caution, explaining at the moment he would feel “remiss” for not even asking if the daughter’s were OK. The family was a bit shaken, understandably, but rather than help his daughter develop a healthy sense of proportion to handle such incidents, he demonstrated holding a grudge, seeking retribution, and gleeful boasting to world for telling off a concerned citizen. The father’s actions in total were simply not a responsible, proportional, or ethical response.

      • I did read it, and I am telling you I must respectfully disagree with some of what you said. I don’t know about less of a redeviant, check, but I do think, by virtue of the fact that they can arrest you and generally make your life miserable that law enforcement, if this guy was law enforcement, is under a heightened obligation to make damn sure that something is in fact wrong before they take action and introduce the badge, gun, etc., into a citizen’s life. That goes triple when they are potentially tarring you as a pervert or sexual deviant, which can really have life-changing consequences even if, as in this case, the accusation is a steaming pile and stems from activity that frankly, I think most people should have ignored.

        I have also seen behavior that made me go hmmm with people who were family members, but it’s my belief that, just like you don’t get between husband and wife, you don’t tell other families how to conduct their affairs unless a crime is being committed.

        I don’t know if the overreaction was due to a guilty conscience or due to the fact that suddenly government, or maybe just a busybody, is tapping him on the shoulder and saying we’re watching.

        • Your first paragraph, as far as I can see, has no relationship to the actual incident. He didn’t pull a badge or threaten arraest, or anything else. he asked a question, and he has a right to ask it. “Busybody” is a prejorative word used to discourage good citizenship–it’s like “snitch.” Someone trying to help out strangers is a Good Samaritan, not a busybody.

          • Good citizenship includes being a good neighbor, and good neighbors mind their own business. It’s not the neighbor’s business to be the local source of gossip and not the neighbor’s business to get involved in parenting decisions, although the neighbor is fully within his rights to take action when those decisions impact him. Yes, busybody is a pejorative word, like snitch, tattletale, rat, and all other words for someone who makes other folks’ business his business. I believe it fits quite well here. Those who blindly thrust their noses into the affairs of others should not complain when they get bloodied. I suspect the only reason this busybody didn’t get a crack on the nose was because the photographer was with his family.

            • You need to live in a cave, Steve. Good neighbors are willing to step up and come to the assistance of people in peril. There is no discernible difference between “I mind my own business” and “I don’t want to get involved.” Your formula isn’t ethics, its the abdication of responsibility, and I reject it utterly.

              • Sorry, I disagree. “I mind my own business” means just that, I only deal with the things that pertain to me and I don’t get involved where I am neither wanted nor needed. “I don’t want to get involved” means I deliberately close my eyes to obviously wrong things. I believe that not getting involved here would represent the former situation. You believe it would represent the latter. It’s obvious you don’t like what this guy wrote, and you don’t like the situation that set it up, and you are getting some pushback against that. I understand that is not going to move you off your position, and we are just going to have to agree to disagree here.

                • No bait. What I will suggest is that Jack’s analysis of neighborly duties is at least consistent. But the “good fences make good neighbors” mentality (and there’s nothing wrong with that) does not gel with having a neighborhood watch.

                  • The question of having a neighborhood watch and the question of taking matters into your own hands are not exactly the same. Was Zimmerman stupid for taking matters into his own hands, yes. Does Trayvon also bear responsibility for his own death for escalating things, yes. And despite my earlier bluster, if dad HAD in fact tried to lay the busybody out or worse, he’d also bear the responsibility if the DHS guy had then put a bullet in him.

  3. I think the HS guy said something because he was getting bad vibes.
    Sometimes when you are in a situation it makes you uncomfortable but you aren’t exactly sure why.
    Also, this dad was not racially profiled.

      • Don’t tell the black guy who got pulled over or the Arab who got pulled out of line at the airport that, there’s simply no convincing them, which goes back to your other post about prewritten narratives. Actually I think the narrative might be a candidate for the next ethics foul.

        • Hell, I’ll tell them both. Race can be part of the total picture, and anyone who denies it is putting activist cant over reality. Obviously race alone means nothing—driving while black should not be suspicious.

          • How exactly do you distinguish between factoring in “race as part of the total picture” which you regard as acceptable, and “race alone” which you say should not be suspicious? And how do you enforce that distinction legally?

            In the case of “driving while black”, could not the police officer who pulled over the driver *always* claim that some other factor was involved, and so justify his actions on the “race as part of the total picture” basis? In what possible way could the driver ever prove that “race alone” was involved? Particularly in the face of the “if you complain you must have a guilty conscience about something” view expressed by the author of this blog and several of the commenters here.

            It is difficult to see, once the legitimacy of factoring in racial judgments as “part of the total picture” has been accepted, how judgements on “race alone” can be prevented, or judged and punished if they are made. The person making the racial judgement need only throw in the “I just thought he looked suspicious” or the “someone else of their ethnicity did something bad so they’re probably a villain” get-out-of-jail-free cards to use the “total picture” defence, and win a gold star as a good citizen, it seems.

            • “How exactly do you distinguish between factoring in “race as part of the total picture” which you regard as acceptable, and “race alone” which you say should not be suspicious? And how do you enforce that distinction legally?”

              With care, common sense, sensitivity and fairness. The alternative is ignoring reality, which, I agree, is often the objective where race is involved. Race is a factor when it’s convenient, and not when it isn’t. That’s a lousy and unethical standard.

              Is this easy? No. That’s no justification for not continuing to perfect a way to do it.

              • You refer to “continuing to perfect” a way to do something that is, in my observation, not done at all, and which I don’t believe *can* be done. Rather than offering wooly “motherhood” observations, could you be a little more specific about the exact means by which citizens of all races can be assured that their lawful activities can be pursued with equal safety, convenience and efficiency?

                • I just barely understand your question. Are you denying that race is ever a relevant factor in figuring out what is going on? That’s ridiculous. Thus my comment about trying to perfect (what will never be perfected) a way to assess information involving race both objectively and while being accepted as objective and fair. It’s impossible, because a claim of racial bias is such a convenient sword to use against good faith observers.

                  Truth tends to be “woolly motherhood,” I guess. Obviously all races can never be assured that their lawful activities can be pursued with equal safety, convenience and efficiency as long as there are racist, bigoted, cruel and stupid assholes in the world, and there always will be. But learning to tell them from those who are acting fairly without race bias is a start. How about the presumption being non-racism, rather than thge default assumption being racism, as in the Michael Brown shooting. That would be progress.

                  • I apologise for being so slow to reply; I’ve been travelling.

                    “Obviously all races can never be assured that their lawful activities can be pursued with equal safety, convenience and efficiency as long as there are racist, bigoted, cruel and stupid assholes in the world, and there always will be. But learning to tell them from those who are acting fairly without race bias is a start.”

                    Fair enough; it would indeed be. But someone who advocates this, and suggests that we should assess these matters “objectively”, should be able to offer some suggestions on how this should be done. If you demand that people should make objective assessments, you should be able to offer some objective test that we should apply. Instead you offer nothing more than a suggestion that there should be a default presumption of non-racism. What makes that objective? It is not immediately obvious that such a presumption reflects reality in society.

                    The author of this blog seems to operate on what I think of as the “hypothetical racism” model. This involves acknowledging that of course there is racism out there *somewhere*, perpetrated by some unnamed hypothetical “assholes”, but in every *specific* case calling out racism is just “a convenient sword”, and that our “default presumption” should be that no racism is involved in an action if there is any conceivable excuse. Which there always is. There is *always* the “driving erratically”, or “behaving suspiciously”, excuse to act as get-out-of-jail-free card.

                    It is undoubtably true that sometimes people reach for claims of racism unjustly, but I am far from sure that this happens more often than claims of racism are unjustly denied, and it seems to me that the “standard of proof” being demanded to “objectively” decide that racial bias is involved is set unreachably high, against fuzzily-defined yardsticks that can be raised whenever it is necessary to ensure that they cannot be met.

                    • Nonsense. The starting point is presumption: one should presume, absence clear evidence to the contrary, that one is in control of how one is perceived, and that the rest of the world isn’t out to get you. A presumption of racism is irrational, not just because it is unfair, but because it is crippling and self-defeating.

      • I would not be surprised if it was gender that set off the alarm bells. Had the mother been the one taking the picture, do you suspect the reaction of the bystander would have been the same?
        -Jut

        • Absolutely not. Gender, and not considering the Asian adoption scenario. A woman shooting photos of two young men would also have passed un-commented upon, I’d think, no matter what the race mix.

            • Your put words in my mouth. I said that gender was a factor, and its a legitimate factor. Men and women are not the same. The gender mix matters. More men run porn rings, kidnap women, rape them, than the other way around. There’s no bias. There is experience and data.

      • Jack, it *is* profiling, and it is racial. Not all racial profiling is unethical. If there’s an APB for a Hispanic man driving a blue pickup truck, there would be no question that stopping a blond is stupid; just targeting the likely suspects is good use of resources. You can defend your point without stretching the meaning of words.

        • How is it profiling? Profiling means that a certain race is deemed inherently likely to commit a particular crime, and thus given special scrutiny. It does not address racial combinations that also involve age, gender and circumstance.

          Here is the definition from a civil rights site:

          “Racial profiling” refers to the targeting of particular individuals by law enforcement authorities based not on their behavior, but rather their personal characteristics. It is generally used to encompass more than simply an individual’s race. As used in this report, it encompasses race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion—and means the impermissible use by law enforcement authorities of these personal characteristics, to any degree, in determining which individuals to stop, detain, question, or subject to other law enforcement activities.”

          Nope. Furthermore, whether the intervenor worked for Homeland Security or not, he was not engaging in law enforcement, and did nothing you or I could not have done. It was a citizen action; he was off duty; he did not announce his agency or show ID. I did not analyze the action from a law enforcement perspective.

          Calling it profiling as Gates did was inflammatory and unfair.

          • My bad, I was taking “racial profiling” as it would be understood by the literal meaning of the words. In my short time involved with risk assessment in another country, we would “profile” based on many characteristics (race and nationality included) with no nefarious or even “legalistic” undertones. Guess I need to find out what the neutral term for racial profiling is nowadays…

  4. People with training in professions where they see questionable things happen often have a greater responsibility to report suspicious behavior. What looks like nothing serious to the casual observer could set off all kinds of warning bells to a trained observer. We should be glad people are doing their jobs. The whole incident was handled correctly by the observer and blown out of proportion by the father. I’d certainly prefer unnecessary intervention to the many cases I hear of where the people with an obligation to help because of their profession refuse to help because of petty rules or because they are “off duty.”

  5. I’m in the middle here about this. The DHS guy didn’t have to say those exact words, but his intent seemed all right. Jack, like you, I think the guy was okay in the action in warning against people who may report based on the wrong idea (“watch out, a lot of people may get the wrong idea”). I was just talking about this to someone – good cops can assess a situation pretty quickly and determine what’s going on. The DHS fellow assessed and warned the guy, even if his words were sketchy.

    The dad had a bit of a kneejerk reaction. But he’s a dad of adopted Chinese girls and Asians aren’t exactly immune to legit, if understated, racism here in the States. Protecting his kids in some way was a natural reaction, if overblown.

    This seems like a bit of misunderstanding at the worst. The DHS guy was doing what law enforcement, or good citizens, should be doing: warning/helping other citizens in adverse conditions. The DHS guy may be insensitive, but he knows what kind of oversensitized, uber-PC climate is around right now, where people will call the cops to arbitrate any kind of event, disagreement, or annoyance.

    In a weird way, I commend both the dad and the LE fellow.

  6. Jack
    I get where you are coming from. It deals with type one and type two errors. However, If the guy that approached was from DHS I would have expected him to display some type of ID when he was confronted by the father and not just said so.

    It could have been equally as likely that the other guy was a deviant and assumed something was going on and he wanted to get in on the action.

    The stereotype that any male of middle age who is interacting with young “nubile” girls is doing so solely for less than honorable reasons is no different than assuming any persons of color, when seen in situations that don’t fit what the viewer believes is the norm, are up to no good and are a threat.

    There is a great deal of distance between things that don’t seem right and probable cause. Where reasonable suspicion falls in this case I don’t know but I think law enforcement could have simply approached the father and began a conversation with him to learn more of what was transpiring before approaching the girls.

    • There is no reason to believe that DHS employee, if he really was such, was acting in his official capacity. That crime isn’t within his purview. I assume he told the father that to explain that he was trained to notice when things were “off.” And I assume they were, or seemed, “off.” The standard isn’t probable cause at all—that’s the standard for an arrest It is far less stringent—reasonable suspicion. The question is subjective entirely: in my experience, do I think something bad is happening that I may be in a position to stop?

      And I don’t think second guessing spontaneous reactions to such situations is fair. What if he suspected, as in some of the situations we have seen where kidnapped girls were subjugated over long periods of time by men using them for sex? An individual is troubled by the vibes between a middle aged man and a young girl, say a 16 year old. Do you approach the man or the girl?

      I think you always ask the victim, because the answer from the suspected victimizer will be the same whether you are wrong or not.

      And this—“The stereotype that any male of middle age who is interacting with young “nubile” girls is doing so solely for less than honorable reasons is no different than assuming any persons of color, when seen in situations that don’t fit what the viewer believes is the norm, are up to no good and are a threat.”—is not a fair description of the situation at hand. You have several factors: 1) a white middle aged man and two much younger Asian teens 2) being posed touching each other 3) in a session that seems to be going on for a long time (15 minutes is long for any casual photograph) 4)with whatever X factor we haven’t been told about, since it is the father’s account—his demeanor, attitude, words, etc. I don’t think you can assume any unfair bias from what we know.

      • Jack:
        I am not suggesting any unfair bias at all. However, reasonable suspicion means that to the rational person something seems to be going on that should not be going on based on the totality of the circumstances. On the continuum of judging behavior I know when the hair on the back of my neck stands up but often that is based on prior experience that puts me on guard – nothing specific just that gut feeling. If the behavior escalates to include something more tangible then it rises to reasonable suspicion. Probable cause can only occur after a known offense has taken place.

        You said: “What if he suspected, as in some of the situations we have seen where kidnapped girls were subjugated over long periods of time by men using them for sex? An individual is troubled by the vibes between a middle aged man and a young girl, say a 16 year old. Do you approach the man or the girl? I think you always ask the victim, because the answer from the suspected victimizer will be the same whether you are wrong or not.”

        If the suspected victims were not showing any signs of intimidation by the suspected victimizer or any fear, then it stands to reason that they will say everything’s OK even if he was a predator; especially if they were unaware of it. Given that the event happened in full view of the public, and the girls had ample opportunity to find someone to help them if the felt it was needed; the fact that they did not seem to be acting fearful or intimidated should have also factored into the totality of circumstances. Thus, any inquiries to the girls state of mind or situation would vitiate any innocent response they gave the DHS agent. Conversely, had the DHS agent used his training and engaged the suspected perpetrator then he might have learned what was going on without having to be explicit about it. If the officer was trained to spot suspicious behavior and fully believed that the father (unknown to him at the time) was victimizing the girls then he was also trained how to intervene in a manner that would increase the officer’s understanding of the activity so it could rise to the level of probable cause which would allow for the arrest.

        You made this point as well. “◾One’s instincts should compel one to act when there is a significant chance that not acting will allow something harmful and preventable to happen to another human being.

        I fully agree with that statement. However the word “significant” is very instructive. Does kidnapping and rape occur with regularity. Yes, and women are convicted of child sexual abuse as well. But the odds of any given middle age man in the company of two teenage girls being a rapist is quite small and is not necessarily significant unless you are predisposed to seeing males as natural aggressors toward women and predators of young girls. How many doting middle age fathers have teenage daughters and take lots of pictures of them? Probably many more than there are predators. Furthermore, had the photographer been of Asian descent, would that make them less likely to be viewed with suspicion? Much of the world human trafficking is run by Russians, Chinese and Thai mobs.

        To make this significant you have to calculate the expected significance. You have to ask the question would have the situation generated suspicion had the girls been of the same race as the father? If yes, then no foul. If no, are Asian girls more likely to be abused by middle aged white men than girls of other races or by men of other races? If no, then it is possible that the proclivities of the DHS employee caused his elevated concern which means that the DHS employee projected his own female preferences onto the father who was unknown to him. Projection of one’s own proclivities is not reasonable.

        I am a firm believer in using the totality of circumstances to lead to reasonable suspicion and beyond. I neither believe that every occurrence of suspicion of those that don’t fit within the traditional social understanding rises to profiling – because sometimes it just is an experiential thing – nor do I believe that such non-traditional situations be the sole basis of, or major factor leading to that suspicion.

        As you pointed out, had this been the mother or another women doing the very same thing it would not generate the same suspicion. Why is that? It is equally probable that women are equally as likely to gain financially from child porn and sex trafficking as men. As a consequence of their gender, women are less likely to be suspected so they have a higher expected return on the illicit behavior. We live in a far different world than those that exploit women so we should not rely wholly on our limited understanding of that world and project it onto any one race or gender without any more to go on than “that it does not look right”. Less than fifty years ago we made the same character assumptions about interracial couples. We assumed that a white woman with a black man meant she was in danger because it could not be voluntary on her part.

        I was not there so I don’t know what the agent saw. I will not condemn him for what he did but I do believe that when someone thinks something is wrong, more investigation is needed than simple observation.

        Thanks again for making me think about such issues.

          • I retract that addendum after reading the column referenced. He used the event as a teaching moment for his daughters.

            What I read was that he is still struggling with what should have been done even though it left a bad taste in his mouth for feeling profiled. At least he appears to be doing some introspection in terms of weighing the cost of security over freedom.

            What bothered me was the other man’s statement: “Let me give you some advice, you have been taking photos of these girls hugging for over 15 minutes.” Exactly where is the advice? It was a implicit condemnation if not outright accusation of illicit behavior.

            • Well, to begin with, it’s pure hearsay. We have no way of knowing what the man really said, and we certainly can’t rely on the exact words relayed by a critical reporter. Occam’s Razor would suggest that the strange quote is simply inaccurate.

              • Agreed: Everything in the column is hearsay. The column could have been developed as a complete fiction as well to condemn racial profiling. There is no record of this event happening in fact. I see no record of the father lodging a complaint.

                I don’t know why Occam’s Razor would suggest that the quote is simply inaccurate. In the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better. Why should we assume that it is inaccurate when it is supposedly told by the one who heard it? It is not really a strange quote. Law enforcement use language to elicit an inculpatory responses without actually making an accusation such as “Have you been drinking? There is an air of alcohol about you.” In my experience, the statement regarding the advice is not “strange” but completely plausible and probably accurate.

                The teaching moment I referenced was based on the paragraph in which he and daughters viewed the behaviors of others and how easy it was to project a set of false assumptions based on the differences of what we feel we should expect to see and what is happening. I did not see that as teaching that racists are everywhere. Maybe my interpretation is wrong, but if I am, how is it any different than teaching them to generally see the behavior of the father as suspect simply because he is white and the girls are not? That is teaching them that racial differences matter in the eyes of the world.

                Here is a hypothetical test: What if two middle aged white men (fathers of two openly gay sons of the same age as the girls) were seen photographing their two boys in a loving embrace while on vacation while they took a lot of pictures. Would we see the men also as predators? Should we? If we should, then are we expressing to our gay children and their natural behavior be hidden from view out of fear. How does a parent of an openly gay, but underage child, show support for the child without behaving in a manner that the child would interpret as hostile to his sexuality?

                Should someone intervene? Probably some will and others will not, while others will simply bask in the entertainment value of speculation and do nothing. There is no doubt that it would be out of the norm, but I for one would have someone else validate my concerns before intervening.

                Perhaps my experience has clouded my judgment in this matter because my stepson who had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident was perceived by one person to be a criminal based on what years ago would have been very innocuous behavior. As a result of the accident he was completely cognitively impaired and saw the world through the innocence of a child’s eyes. Before he died from complications of those injuries he liked to take walks and talk to people. One day he spoke to a little girl playing with her dog in the girl’s fenced yard. An hour or so later we were visited by the local police. The mother saw him talking to her and immediately saw him as a predator. According to the officer, she did not go out to assess the situation. Her report was based only on what she saw from her kitchen window and that she saw him talking to her child and petting the dog. He was not in the yard with her. We understood the concern but we had to take away one of the few enjoyments he had left in life. He could no longer take walks or interact with children alone. Any vestige of personal autonomy was lost because of someone’s rational fear of child predators precluded any other possible motivation as to why my stepson would talk to a little girl and pet a dog. If the same reaction by the mother not have occurred had my stepson been a stepdaughter are we at a point that all males are to be immediately suspected of impropriety?

                I prefer to validate my assumptions before acting using another set of eyes . I find that doing so prevents my errors in judgment or evaluation of other’s behavior from not becoming fodder for activists to use as evidence of institutional racism and bigotry or worse, child predation.

            • You can hardly say he is using it as a teaching moment for his daughters—what is he teaching? That people are racist when they are looking out for child abuse? And if it’s just his daughters he’s teaching, why is writing a whiny Post essay designed to discourage citizens from being proactive when they think they see suspicious activity?

  7. Something feels “off” about this story. Why would the father tell his daughters that the stranger thought he was taking pictures of them for sleazy sex websites… to the point that he made the oldest “stoic” daughter cry? Did they really need to know that? It seems the father upset the girls much more than the stranger asking if they were okay. Why was the father so embarrassed about the stranger’s question? He admits that he is used to getting intrusive questions so what’s the big deal now? Why would the father say he felt “exposed”? That’s weird. What is the father’s motive for writing this story? Is this a human interest story or a story about the evils of Homeland Security? Or something else? The father’s petulance just rubs me the wrong way.

  8. He’s wrong about them being beautiful, too. Granted, that is how he sees them – but that’s the point, it’s inherently subjective and he shouldn’t be putting it out as a fact. (They’re far too gaunt and full of grinning teeth for my taste, and probably don’t have blue eyes either, even though I know that gaunt and toothy is what Hollywood has been going for since the ’60s – but I am admitting it’s a taste rather than asserting that their repulsiveness is a fact.)

  9. Tough call here. I think that 15 minutes of taking such photos stinks of suspicious behavior. I wish I had the gumption to go up to a stranger and politely investigate the situation. I agree that the guy should have thanking the stranger for looking after his girls.

  10. A challenge for you, in good faith as I’m as uncomfortable with the father’s response as the stranger’s intrusion.

    From the point of view of the stranger, and assuming the optics are so bad that it makes sense to intervene how is asking the question to the girls going to solve the problem? In the reported case he is embarrassing the family. If it’s an sleazy but legal enterprise with the girls likely “in” they will just wave him away. If, as feared, it was a trafficking case there will be prepared responses and they will be warned to take their dealings someplace else.

    At this point he can either escalate or let it go. If escalating he better have a really good case based on the reading of the girls’ response (and even “experts” on that area turn out to be wrong more often than right) and be prepared to compensate if he’s in the wrong (I’m of the opinion that under the current state of police overreach in the U.S. any time one is subject to an inappropriate “investigation” compensation should be given); if not escalating, he has either bothered an innocent family or made things harder for the victims as they are likely to face repercussions.

    No matter how much I try I can’t really see how this intervention could have turned out for good. In my view this is a scenario that would have greatly benefitted from “ethics chess” (or just “common-sense chess”). Note that I am not excusing the father, he should have kept his scolding private, or even better, used his interaction as a way to educate the questioner.

  11. 15 minutes is a photo shoot, on a boat which there is little space and even less to do. Just a guess but I sure this production was receiving more then just one persons attention after about 5 minutes. I don’t believe any of the father’s claims of what was said or the suspicions he surmised the bystander (DHS) had. It could have simply been the two teenagers were displaying disdain for the whole process and the father wasn’t picking up on the fact that the girls were not enjoying the spectacle he was making and someone was trying to help them out. It could also have been he was creepy as hell and comments were being made or someone reported something to the crew who notified the TSA (DHS) agent on board. If this guy was working then he would have had to react, the most efficient way in this situation is to interact, a simple “how is it going” or “are you ok” may have been sufficient for him to be confident nothing nefarious was going on. The anti law enforcement folks need to take a step back, this is not like many cases of overreach, they were not followed, detained or searched. Talking to people in a public place is not an infringement on your rights. If the agent wasn’t satisfied things were fine then he could have started an official line of inquiry. It seems to me far more likely this father was embarrassed because he was being clueless, looked like an ass in front of his girls and made up a story racism and abuse of authority to shine his daughters on. Public embarrassment caused by ones father is a sure way to get a teen girl to cry.

    • A lot of this is departing from what we actually know into the realm of supposition. I can’t see someone making up this kind of elaborate story just to “shine his daughters on,” although in this day and age of fathers donning extremely short shorts in public to shame their daughters into dressing more modestly and donning skirts in public to show solidarity with gender-confused five-year-old boys, maybe I should give that a second thought.

      • I know it is a stretch but we really don’t know what happened. What we have is a father who tells us a story, when you look at what he puts forth as facts and the conclusions he has reached it doesn’t really seem logical. It smells like a lie, if it is a lie then why lie? An agenda to push, face to save or both?

  12. I’m wagering that there is much more to the interaction than what we are hearing. I’m willing to bet the dad has chosen to not disclose certain components of his own dialogue.

    Like Jut above mentions would be his reaction to someone directly talking to his underage daughters…

    No one I know, no responsible polite adult just bypasses a parent and starts carrying on with children. We all start speaking to the adults first. I might be willing to put money that the “concerned man” talked with the dad first and received a less than cordial response which possibly only heightened suspicions leading to directly questioning the daughters.

    Everything about the dad’s account leaves too many unanswered questions all revolving around the dad coupled with the fact that the dad then turns around and takes the stance of an aggrieved victim and airs this out and makes way more out of it than should be?

    Yeah, this stinks and it stinks a lot like the dad is a jerk. But we’ll never know.

    Manners and conversation would go along way to resolving most problems without creating more…

    • No one I know, no responsible polite adult just bypasses a parent and starts carrying on with children. We all start speaking to the adults first.
      ***************
      Good point.

  13. Even though I am the same race as my father and step-father, I was trying to think how they would have reacted in this situation.
    I don’t think either one of them would have gotten mad.
    Annoyed maybe.

    In fairness to the father in question, I felt differently about the 15 min photo shoot after I found out he was a photographer and that this was an ongoing project.

  14. Another possibility is that the dad is a bit of a douche.

    It’s just funny that I was thinking “thou protesteth too much” and then Jack says it.
    Too different people read the material and come to the same conclusion.

  15. As the father in this story and the author of the Washington Post op-ed piece, let me offer my comments. First, I find your mention of the Roshomon effect to be an interesting one. Yes, both the man and myself interpreted what was going on in two very different ways. However, that’s where the analogy starts to bear fruit.

    You laud the actions of the stranger who approached us as being responsible and proactive: as someone who was simply interested in the welfare of my daughters. Yet, there is a different way of approaching this.

    Rather than just blindly accept the fact that this man had only good intentions, I sought him out later to see if I could find more context to his actions. I did this because, as my daughters’ father, I was being responsible and proactive, the very things you assigned this stranger and the very things you failed to see in my actions.

    In our society, politicians and the media take very complex issues and cull them down to overly simplistic “black or white” soundbites. However, the very complexity of many contemporary problems demands that we, at least, investigate, the shades of gray that occupy the “in betweens.” And that’s exactly what I did.

    I have heard from many Department of Homeland Security agents in the days since this article was published. In all cases they have said that any well-trained DHS agent would not have interceded after a mere 15 minutes of observation. In fact, they said, DHS agents are trained to observe suspicious activities for much longer in order to better assess the situation. They have also suggested that this man, even if he did work for DHS, might not have been an agent at all but someone who works as a paper pusher or other worker. And, of course, the possibility exists that he didn’t work for the Department of Homeland Security at all.

    The article i wrote was about our biases and rush to judge. I actually took the ideas that encompass the Roshomon effect to do exactly what this stranger should have done. I investigated further. And once he said, “Let me give you some advice: those girls were hugging for 15 minutes,” and then claimed to “understand” when I calmly explained that I was a photographer and we often take lots of photos, I had gathered enough information to make a reasonable assessment of his actions. So, I was doing exactly what you praise this stranger for supposedly doing. I’m sorry you failed to see this. If he had answered “I’m sorry. I was just concerned…” the story would have ended there and there would have been on op-ed. But he didn’t say that. He stated an overly facial interpretation of my photographing my daughters, one that I found suspicious.

    As citizens, are we to blindly accept another’s interpretation of an event. Or are do we have a right to, in turn, question these actions?

    • So, Jeff, by all means, please set the record straight, was there any detail you left out? Did you tell the guy to flake off initially? During those 15 minutes did either daughter say “dad” even once? Did either daughter indicate that she didn’t like this?

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