War on the Unexpected: A Screenplay



A STRANGER emerges from an apartment and walks through the adjacent parking lot to the complex’s central roadway. A late-middle-age white male, he is dressed casually in black trousers, red t-shirt with STAFF in large white letters on the back, well-worn blue-and-white pinstriped locomotive driver (“engineer”) cap, and dark sunglasses. His graying beard is trimmed short, but he is obviously overdue for his quarterly haircut. He carries a bulky black prosumer digital camera.

The bright blue sky is filled with large clouds from an approaching storm front and, opposite the sun, a cumulonimbus bank looms over the far horizon above a row of apartment buildings.

The Stranger studies the clouds, moves to various vantage points, examines the rest of the sky. He braces the camera against a road sign pole and fiddles extensively with the knobs & buttons while taking several pictures.

WOMAN #1 emerges from a building, enters a car, and drives along the central roadway. She slows, stops next to the Stranger, and rolls down her window.


What are you taking pictures of?


Those great clouds over there! Looks like we’re in for a real storm later today!


Oh. Have a nice day. (She rolls up the window and drives off)

The Stranger is joined an elderly COUPLE, WOMAN #2 who is probably his wife, and a teenage GIRL who vaguely resembles all of them. The Girl is wrapped in a large towel. They walk slowly through the apartment complex to the pool, appear baffled by the childproof latch on the gate, and are finally admitted by WOMAN #3 who shows them how to operate it.


They sit around a table in the corner, jockeying the uncomfortable plastic chairs for position in the shade cast by the table’s umbrella, while the Girl removes a towel to reveal a red swimsuit, enters the pool, and begins swimming laps.

Coming up for air
Coming up for air

Various other PEOPLE occupy the area near the pool, including older couples, males of various ages, several curvaceous mid-twenty-ish females clad in revealing swim / sunbathing attire, and a group of middle-age couples.

The Stranger takes several pictures of the Girl in the pool.

Time passes.

The Stranger, realizing that he’s about to spend the next three hours sitting on his well-flattened butt in the van while driving home, stands up, stretches, and walks to the gate. He intently studies the labels on the childproof latch, which is misinterpreted as being baffled, and leaves the pool area.


Manhole cover
Manhole cover

The Stranger strolls around the apartment complex to the side entrance road, and returns along a different route. He seems to take a particular interest in drain grates, manhole covers, garage doors, and infrastructure in general. He scuffs the dirt from one manhole cover and takes a picture of it. He continues walking around the complex and returns to the pool.

His companions gather themselves together and emerge from the pool gate.


A New York State Police car drives slowly into the complex through the side entrance. The TROOPER scans the area, spots the Stranger, and pulls up beside him.


Good day. How are you doing?


(Smiling) So far, so good.


What brings you here today?


We’re visiting my wife’s parents. (Gestures to indicate the Couple among his companions)


(Eyes the group) We’ve had a report of someone in the area taking pictures of buildings and possibly people.


Well, I’ve been taking pictures of clouds, a manhole cover, and my daughter. (Smiles) I think it’s still permitted for me to take her picture.


(Getting down to business) Your name?


(gives name, helpfully spells last name)


What’s your birth date?


(Gives a date long in the past)


(Typing on laptop PC) And your address?


(Gives city and state)


(With emphasis) Your street address.


(Gives street address)


Phone number?


(Gives phone number, repeats when trooper misses last four digits)


(Types, pauses, types, reads screen) Enjoy your stay.

Trooper drives off, leaving apartment complex through main entrance.


(To his companions) Well, I now have a police record tagged “suspicious behavior”.

The group walks back to the apartment while discussing recent events and their plans for the remainder of the Independence Day weekend.


P.O.V. pulls back and ascends in Google-Earth fashion to show entire Adirondacks region. The Stranger assumes the role of voice-over INTERLOCUTOR. Fade to black during narration.


Despite my pique, the Trooper performed his job properly and with decorum. While the opinions of my companions differ, I contend that once a 911 call has been received, the police must follow established procedures to resolve the complaint. The response depends on the initial report and what the Trooper finds during his approach.

The fault, if any is to be found, thus resides with people who have been recently trained to suspect once-normal behavior: anything they wouldn’t do is considered threatening, if not hostile, when done by someone they don’t recognize.

Photography, in particular, is now treated as reconnaissance for an assault. Unless it’s done by surveillance cameras, in which case it’s perfectly benign.


Perhaps you can tell a similar story.

Extra Credit
Explore these 27 parametric variations on the theme of Stranger:

  • Appearance: whitebread / black / Levantine
  • Dress: casual / ripped baggies / ersatz-military-wanker-camo
  • Conduct: friendly / avoids-meeting-of-eyes / arrogant

Describe the Trooper’s likely approach to and interaction with these Strangers, assuming sufficient training to avoid racial profiling:

  • [white + military + friendly]
  • [black + military + arrogant]
  • [Levantine + ripped baggies + avoids-meeting-of-eyes]

Double Bonus
Consider the behaviour variation where a [white + casual + friendly] Stranger politely but firmly refuses to cooperate with the Trooper’s inquiries. Explore the range of perfectly legal and extremely unpleasant outcomes. Possible working title: “How to ruin the rest of your holiday weekend in five minutes flat”.

Background information, all highly recommended:

Update: Many internal links on Schneier’s blog are broken. As nearly as I can tell, all inter-word hyphens should now be underscores: the-war-on-the.html becomes the_war_on_the.html. Perhaps they switched the back-end database?

7 thoughts on “War on the Unexpected: A Screenplay

  1. Do you know these villains: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernd_und_Hilla_Becher ? They took shots of all blast furnaces, open and closed pit mines, you name it, and got away with it!


    Only a terrorist would take a picture of this: http://www.joaohenriques.com/abitpixel/of-course-we-were-freaks/

    Ed: the last link eventually takes you to the interview:

  2. I once took a half-hour walk through this rich… well, you can’t exactly call it a neighborhood, but it was right across the street from where I lived at the time. Long story short, there are some nice houses there and I took the walk with the express purpose of giving my new camera a test run. As I was taking a picture of a house that I thought looked particularly nice in the light & landscape a woman came running out aggressively inquiring why I was taking pictures of the house. My astonished reaction seemed to calm her down near-instantaneously. I’m still puzzled regarding what exactly she was afraid of.

    1. what exactly she was afraid of

      Obviously, you were taking pictures for your criminal friends, so they’d know exactly which house to burgle.

      I suppose you told her the high-tech crowd these days just uses Google Street View; no need for an accomplice with an actual camera…

      1. Actually they didn’t add Street View to the maps of the Netherlands until ’09, albeit I’m actually referring to ’05 or ’06 — before Street View was available anywhere at all. I don’t know if it changes anything about your hypothesis, but the camera I was testing was a cheap(ish) P&S, not a DSLR.

        In any case, if I had been a scouting thief I doubt I’d conspicuously stand in the middle of the street fiddling with the camera settings. Unless I were a thief from the Home Alone movies, I suppose.

        1. the camera I was testing was a cheap(ish) P&S

          An obvious Bad Guy camera! [grin]

          Move along, this is not the suspect you’re looking for..

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