I am Reidar Visser, an historian with a PhD in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Oxford. I have published three books on the history and politics of Iraq, as well as numerous academic articles on federalism, constitutional change and rule of law issues. My articles for Foreign Affairs are available here; my op-ed for The New York Times on the end of the Iraq War is here. I have frequently given invited presentations on Iraq-related subjects for organisations like the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon. For my work on deconstructing the dominant narratives on Iraqi politics, I have been called “a one-man truth squad”.
I am also Reidar Visser, a twenty-first century witch, Foucault’s modern madman, the enfant terrible of liberal Western civilisation. Since February 2011, I have been chased and harassed extra-judicially 24/7 by police and state-sponsored vigilantes in altogether 14 countries in Europe, North America, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. The reason for my predicament is a “crime” which is not a crime: Street photography for a fashion history project. I am a victim of the monstrosity and depravity of pseudo-liberal governments in Norway and the Netherlands, yet I keep dragging my sorry case across the continents in the hope that somewhere there may be a government that actually respects one of the most fundamental of human rights – the presumption of innocence. So far my strange brand of human rights tourism has taken me from Norway to the UK, the USA, Canada, Qatar, Jordan, Switzerland, Italy, France and the Netherlands. I am currently in a country in the Asia-Pacific region where the mistreatment continues and where day and night I am harassed by plainclothes police officers.
Many would say the discrepancy between these two descriptions of myself are tragic. Some may consider me insane; others might consider my predicament as an obvious rationale for suicide. Suicide certainly seems to be the goal of the police officers that keep harassing me without having any apparent goals defined in convential judicial terms. But I am not going to make it that simple for them. Ever the historian, instead of spending time lamenting my misery, I will try instead to focus on the penetrating insights in the workings of the perverted modern state that I gain from my travails. When their harassment methods get more intrusive, I try to think fieldwork and unique source proximity. Instead of contemplating suicide, I dream of publishing my fourth book. The more they mistreat me, the more I will endeavour to write – both about the criminals that chase me and their cowardly sponsors in high places in the governments of Norway and the Netherlands.
Despite the horror that I am going through, I try to appreciate my newfound knowledge about the scandalous state of our Western, “rational” bureaucracies. I now better understand how Western policy in complex settings like the Middle East can go so horribly wrong. With the academic discoveries I make about our time and the shallowness of our own civilisation, my own pain becomes somewhat meaningful, too. In that kind of perspective, this is not the biggest tragedy of my life; rather, it is the biggest scoop I ever made as an historian. Through writing, I can try to take back what the so-called rechtsstaat of Norway never granted me: Due process, and the right to explain my case.
In this way, my Flying Dutchman journey is not only one of suffering but also one of discovery. Consider it an experiment in social science and contemporary history: My strange case relating to street photography travels across boundaries and cultures, yet it prompts surprisingly stereotypic, savage and intolerant responses across the board, in democratic and non-democratic states alike. This in turn opens up a number of interesting perspectives. It suggests that, when it comes to basic judicial notions like the presumption of innocence, the distinction between advanced, Western liberal democracies and other polities is grossly exaggerated. Similarly, the “rule of law culture” associated with modern Western democracies in my experience comes across as only skin deep. When it comes to judicial culture, post-modernity, it seems, is nothing more than a façade to mask how fragile and reversible the Western transition from traditional society to modernity really is. Police state tendencies can be found in Norway as they can be found in Qatar; in many cases international police cooperation and the burgeoning NYPDfication of European policing do away with notions of national sovereignty entirely. In brief, my radical thesis is that in several Western countries, the concept of rule of law is nothing more than empty fiction .
I am well aware that in establishing credibility for such a radical perspective, I am facing enormous challenges – especially with regard to communicating to the two very different groups that make up my potential readership.
Firstly, there is the tiny minority of people around the world who know about my affair because they have participated or are still participating in the operation against me. Their numbers are not big: Maybe 150 in Oslo (Norway) where the operation began in 2011; 300 in places I visited for shorter periods during March-June 2011 in the UK, US, Canada, Qatar, Jordan, France and Italy; 700 in Noordwijk in the Netherlands (where I stayed from July 2011 to January 2012); 700 in Maasdam in the Netherlands (where I was from January to July 2012); and finally another 200 where I currently am (a capital city in the Asia-Pacific region). That’s no more than around 2,000. Given that many of these people have cooperated illegally with the police, it seems unlikely they will ever come forward to confirm my story even though they are in a position to do so.
Secondly, there is the vast majority of potential readers who have never heard of what I describe. They will likely think that my narrative is unbelievable, that the charges I bring against celebrated democracies are just too monstrous to be true, and that I may well be suffering from a number of psychiatric illnesses.
To those who think I am now crazy, please consider that every blog post, scientific article and op-ed that I have published since 12 February 2011 (and each of my 3,500 tweets) has been authored under the duress that I am trying to describe. That is a large body of scholarship available for scrutiny and screening for possible traces of madness. To those familiar with my Iraq scholarship, I solemnly swear every word I write about police stalking is just as close to the truth as anything I have ever written on Iraq.
Please remember also that this is not the first time I have been considered an academic lunatic. Remember Iraq’s dark days of 2006, when I stoically maintained that the country would survive in one piece, and when just about every pundit in DC dismissed me as a nationalist dogmatic for not embracing “soft partition”? Well, look where we are today. Iraq still stands; the interpretation of the lunatic prevailed. Why not instead take into account the possibility that I may be a rare case of an articulate subaltern, speaking a language that academics understand, and describing, as a subject, police mistreatment that is usually meted out to people who may be less likely to write about it: The homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts and other marginalised enemies of the state. With the ferocity and the bluntness of the operation carried out against me – who was always a potential whistle-blower – how much more can there be hidden beneath the tip of the iceberg? When the police in a country with a pristine democracy reputation like Norway can work like this, how do you think conditions are in states with far worse human rights rankings?
Away from this blog, I am pursuing several long-term goals. These include activism on the part of other victims of police criminality and police stalking; the completion, using alternate sources, of my street fashion history project that was criminalized by Norwegian police and led them to target me in the first place; and writing a blow by blow account of my experiences with police stalking.
Above all, after more than 550 days of around the clock extra-judicial punishment, I hope to lift the debate about my case from the question of the virtues or otherwise of my photographic activity, to the bigger issue of why I, as a controversial photographer, am not entitled to exactly the same legal protection as the terrorist, the rapist and the paedophile. It is a source of some considerable irony to me that I was applauded back in 2010 for my work demanding due process and the presumption of innocence for members of the Saddam regime in Iraq. They may well have included rapists and murderers, but I always defended their right to a fair trial when it was in jeopardy due to vigilantism sponsored by political parties inside the Iraqi government. When I today trumpet the same due-process rights to for controversial photographers in Norway, people react with fear and suspect I may be mad.
Through my writings I hope to show that the principles of presumption of innocence, no punishment without law and the right to appear before a court must apply as much in Norway as they do in Iraq, regardless of whether the alleged crime relates to murder or photography. In the second when claims to respect human rights lose their universality, they become a joke.
Feel free to write to me: reidarvisser (at) gmail.com
On Twitter: http://twitter.com/reidarvisser