Sunday, October 5, 2008

Parisian Paranoia

Today, while walking past a conference center on a street I won't name, I noticed barricades and a cop in front of the center. More significantly, I noticed a larger number of plainclothes rent-a-cops milling about. They were even more obvious than the real cops, despite the lack of uniforms. I puzzled over this until I saw people entering the conference center, dressed in a way that identified them as members of a certain religious/national group that is remarkable for its extreme paranoia in situations like this. Even though Paris isn't a city prone to violence, and openly violent incidents are extraordinarily rare, people in this group seem to be afraid of their own shadows and require great amounts of security (in their view), and not just only the security provided by regular police. Since it seems that this is disproportionate to the risk, I often wonder if it isn't just a tacit assertion of self-importance—I've seen it with other people and groups in other contexts, as when a has-been, unknown “celebrity” surrounds herself with bodyguards to protect her against threats that don't exist, simply because she likes to imagine that she is still important enough to be at risk.

Anyway, while walking past this venue, minding my own business, I caught one of the rent-a-cops approaching me out of the corner of my eye. With all the stealth of an elephant overdosed on stimulants, he moved in behind me and accelerated as if he planned to jump me or something. I could see the wheel turning in his tiny head (it was too small to have multiple wheels turning): he apparently thought I was a bad guy with evil intentions, or at least was hoping that I was. I don't like being followed by dorks, so I turned to face him directly, showing him that his cover was blown, and he immediately veered off to one side. I don't know if he actually thought I hadn't noticed him; I guess I could charitably assume that he wanted me to notice him and feel intimidated. But I think the reality is that he thought he was being sneaky and didn't realize how painfully obvious he was. Given his inability to be discreet and his obvious incompetence in determining who is a risk and who isn't, I have to wonder what real security he could provide to anyone.

There are people in the world who truly understand security and can keep people or places secure, but they seem to be outnumbered 1000 to 1 by impostors who have learned everything they know about security from movies and television shows. Fortunately, I don't think this particular event needed much security, anyway, so perhaps it all works out to have pretend rent-a-cops protecting an event against pretend risks. And I'm sure it makes the attendees feel a lot more special than they really are.

The media in France point out that even the French president surrounds himself with bodyguards, and he did this even before being elected. Are there really commando groups scheming to take him down at the first opportunity, or is he simply paranoid? There has been considerable speculation on that point. Indeed, one could ask the same thing about American presidents: Are they really in that much danger, or is all the over-the-top security really just an assertion of how important they are supposed to be?

Anyway, for average people like me, this species of theater is just an obstacle to getting from place to place. I think that anyone who feels he is in so much danger that he has to close off a street, neighborhood, or city just to move about should probably just stay home in his fortress, so that the rest of the world (Paris in this case) can just get on with life without being forced to watch the show.