T he sign above the highway leading into the nation's capital advised motorists to "Report Suspicious Activity" and gave an 800 number for the Office of Homeland Security. As a reporter, I figured this was right up my alley and set out yesterday to report on things that struck me as suspicious.
For instance, near the Jefferson Memorial, I saw a five-foot-tall metal box that was hooked up to an electrical outlet and equipped with a high-tech antenna and chrome-dome receptor. What was it?
I asked a couple of National Park Service workers and some Cherry Blossom Festival organizers whose tent was set up next to the thing if they knew. Little did I know that my inquiry would become a suspicious activity in itself.
"We hear you've been asking curious questions," U.S. Park Police officer Michael Ramirez said as he and fellow officer Karl Spilde approached me from behind a blossomless cherry tree. "Why are you doing that?"
Both officers carried 9mm semiautomatic pistols, Mace and batons. Perhaps because I had just left the Jefferson Memorial, where I'd read a few lines about "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and "all men are created equal," I felt bold enough to pose a question of my own: "Why are you asking me that?"
What I really wanted to know was why my questions about the box had made me suspect. Or was it that an African American -- whom someone may have mistaken for a Middle Easterner -- was asking them?
The only way to get to the bottom of this, I thought, was to ask more questions.
"Let me see your ID," Spilde said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Call for backup," Spilde eventually told Ramirez as he seized my notebook and pen and began to search me. Was I being arrested, I asked before turning over my driver's license.
Eight officers responded to the call for backup. One old me that, legally, I was not being arrested, just subject to "investigative detention."
Said Sgt. R.J. Steinheimer, "There have been reports of suspicious activity regarding you."
"By whom?" I asked.
"Can't tell you that," he replied.
"What kind of suspicious activity?" I asked.
"Apparently you have been showing interest in equipment on the grounds, making notes, that sort of thing," he said. "Are you interested in talking to us about what you're doing?"
I could have told him right then that I was a journalist. But I figured that any citizen should be able to ask a couple of questions without being detained as a suspicious person. I told him that I simply wanted to know what kind of machine it was.
"Are you aware of the current threat level?" Officer J. Keyser asked.
I told him I was. The United States had, after all, just launched an attack on Iraq knowing that it would increase the chances of terrorist attacks at home. But that didn't explain why I was being associated with Code Orange.
Officer E. Sinkeldam asked if I'd seen the ABC-TV piece on "20/20" about how "al Qaeda operatives had posed as tourists and had used their video cameras for surveillance before 9/11. In this heightened state of alert," he explained, "if anyone shows a particular interest in something, we get suspicious."
I pointed out that people all around us were using video cameras and cameras of all kinds to photograph who knows what. Even knowing I'd never get a straight answer, I pointedly asked whether I had been detained because I was African American or whether I looked Middle Eastern. The officers just smiled wryly. A Park Police detective would later say that "a tourist" had reported me to police. As soon as I heard that, I knew which one it was. I recalled that as I began photographing the metal box, a woman pulled out her cell phone and began keeping a not-so-discreet eye on me.
After an hour and a half, when word finally got around that I was a writer for The Washington Post, the atmosphere lightened up considerably. The officers even answered my question about that contraption: It was simply an air quality testing device.
And as if to let me know that we were all on the same side now, Officer Keyser asked, "Have you noticed any suspicious activity in the area?"