THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 318, May 8, 2005
I'm Ready for My Close-up!
Special to TLE
In the classic film Sunset Boulevard, aging silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is fixated on a return to stardom. Firm in her delusions that her fans miss her and that Paramount Studios still revolves around her popularity, she sees cameras called to report a murder as being present to film her in a comeback role she's written for herself. As the film rolls, the thoroughly crazy actress holds her chin high, looks into the lenses surrounding her, and says to an absent director, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
Up until a few years ago, the notion that you might be the center of the universe and the object of everyone's attention was either infantile or insane. But today, it feels a little something like that when you visit Washington DC in this post-9/11 era. Although there's a lesser military presence and I didn't see any rooftop snipers on my most recent visit (both were obvious when I traveled to the nation's capital just as the war in Iraq was getting underway), there are cameras everywhere. If you feel like you're being watched, it's because you are. While that's a sad fact of life in many cities today, it's even more so in Washington.
What makes the idea of surveillance cameras such a sticky one is that they really can prove helpful. On the other hand, they can also be a very real violation of privacy as well as Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections. Further, they may actually hinder certain goals, or be used under false pretenses. Perhaps worst of all, no matter how the cameras are used, they can prove to be very bad things indeed in the hands of those who may abuse the voyeuristic powers they're given.
Organizations have sprung up to keep an eye on those who are doing the watching. Privacy advocacy groups monitor the cameras, the agents who use them, and the stated missions for such surveillance. But once again, the issuethough most assuredly contentiousdoesn't have to be as difficult as some would choose to make it. In fact, the most difficult part of any such debate is the insistence by authorities that they need they information (in many instances, they don't) and their assurances that the power won't be abused (in too many instances, it is).
In fact, The Washington Post reported that the abuses began almost as soon as the technology became readily available. It doesn't help that a number of the police cameras in Washington DC are equipped with microphones which, under certain circumstances, make people liable to audio surveillance as well (supposedly, the microphones are turned on only with the permission of a judge, which in and of itself proves that the police are well aware that such blanket surveillance is otherwise unconstitutional).
While law enforcement argues the technology enhances our safety and helps the police do their jobs, and civil liberties advocates worry about the implications of an ubiquitous Big Brother, some seem to be missing the point all together: Often, these cameras aren't necessary or prove to be an even greater danger than no cameras at all. Of course, those who favor surveillance systems point out that the cameras are erected in public places. Repeated court rulings have rightly determined that we can have no expectation of privacy in public places. If other people gathered around us might see us picking our noses or scratching an itch, there's no reason the police shouldn't be able to see the same thing. But the fact that other people can see us in public places is actually a good argument against the cameras.
Consider for a moment the terrorist who wants to plant explosives at the site of one of our national monuments. Tourists are everywhere with cameras of their own. Try as he might, he's unlikely to be able to escape being photographed, filmed, or both. Secondly, tourists are...well, everywhere. People are going to see him tucking that bomb beneath an ornate column and they're going to report the mysterious bag left unattended. Of course, a suicide bomber is another story, but there's nothing surveillance cameras could do to stop that man, either.
And then there are the cameras that present more of a danger than any positive effect. At the moment, those are the infamous "red light cameras." Installed to curb those motorists who would run red lights and cause accidents, it's since been acknowledged by Washington officials that the cameras there are actually used largely to supplement the police budget. If that's not bad enough, repeated studiesone in Virginia among themhave shown that accidents and injuries actually increase when red light cameras are used. There are other valid arguments against red light cameras as well. But even assuming these arguments carry little or no weight, former Congressman Bob Barr likely summed up the authorities' sole true rationale when he pointed out that, "...once again, cash trumps the Constitution."
All of this is not to say that I don't believe there's a place for surveillance of various and sundry types. I said that I don't agree that cameras should be everywhere in public places by virtue of the fact that public places are, by default, well observed by all of those in attendance. But places not open to the publicthose offering vulnerability for various reasonswould be sensible places for camera installation. Motion detectors might also be a good idea for those areas not patrolled or otherwise monitored so as to alert the authorities to intruders in places they don't belong.
Washington's Metro transportation system is closely monitored with cameras which would likely do little to stop an actual attack even as they record hundreds of thousands of innocents on their way to and fro. But the system also has installed sensors which monitor the area for certain chemicals. The latter system is entirely non-invasive of innocent travelers, but yet it offers early detection of serious threats. There's a dramatic difference in my mind between these two surveillance systems where one sifts everybody through a net, and the other only targets those people and things that have given just cause for suspicion.
The security procedures at museums and the like in Washington remain in place, though portions are a little silly. After all, do you really expect me to cause any serious damage with a nail clipper? And do you seriously think I could hold any hostages for long, or fight off with any effectiveness a cadre of armed security guards with my small canister of mace? I confess I'm inclined to let the museums slide a bit simply because a nail clipper actually could cause some irreparable harm to an original Rembrandt before the vandal could be stopped, and because my presence there is far more voluntary than it is going from Point A to Point B on the street outside. With numerous attentive guards, however, I still wonder about the need for cameras.
The office buildings housing Congressional representatives have standard metal detector and x-ray machines at the doors, but the buildings are largely quite accessible and, once inside, the offices are even more so (except for Tom DeLay's office which boasted an armed guard at the door last week, a fact that probably got me looked at a little strangely by that selfsame guard when I smirked as I walked past the entry). But again, you can count on cameras being in every corridor and around every corner (it's impossible for me to avoid asking why it is that the actual Congressional offices aren't as closely monitored when the case can certainly be made that there are more criminals inside those rooms than there are in the hallways outside).
The Capitol itself is another matter, and the list of prohibited items is impressive if not obviously sensible at first blush. You're permitted to carry nothing whatsoever if you want to spend some time in the observation gallery. Armed guards are everywhere, and most of them looked as if they took their jobs pretty seriously. But while guns and knives aren't getting in, I have to wonder if it doesn't make less sense to have cameras mounted everywhere than it would to use a system comparable to the Metro's to detect explosives or other chemicals. (For the record, I do not know if the Capitol is protected by such sensors or not. If it isn't, it should be. The cameras should be ditched either way.)
Much as is the case of the museums, the National Archives has a mandate to protect the priceless and irreplaceable, including the originals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. As always when I visit Washington, I made a point of seeing these so-called "Charters of Freedom." No matter the ravages time or a host of politicians have inflicted on them, they remain worthy concepts. On this visit, I learned for the first time some of the details of the cases built to protect these precious pieces of parchment. One of the guards posted near the cases told a group of schoolchildren that the documents would, at least theoretically, survive a nuclear blast. "We'd all be dead," he said somberly, "but the documents would survive."
I personally think that's wonderful. Although they're "just" pieces of paper, they're also the embodiment of some really wonderful ideas. Unfortunately, the protections for us, and from the government, they represent have been eroded over the years as much as the ink has faded on the Declaration of Independence.
As the cameras impassively observed us all, I had to wonder: What titanium cases or security measures are there that will protect these documents from the men and women who work just down the street? What inert gases can possibly preserve them from a nation of people who are, on average, far more interested in being protected at all costs than they are in being free? And what could possibly convince those politicians and those people responsible that, just like the tattered parchments themselves, once freedom has been severely damaged or destroyed, it will be daunting indeed to bring it back?
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