A discussion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (TOTN) opinion page this afternoon focused on the use of surveillance cameras for security in the wake of last week’s Boston Marathon bombing and aftermath. The show’s summary read, “Investigators in the Boston Marathon bombings were able to identify the suspects using footage from surveillance cameras. Some believe that this shows the need for surveillance cameras in public spaces, while others believe that such cameras encroach on our civil liberties.”
The opinion pieces used as the foundation for the discussion were Farhad Manjoo, Slate.com, “We Need More Cameras, And We Need Them Now;” Falguni A. Sheth and Robert E. Prasch, Salon.com, “In Boston, Our Bloated Surveillance State Didn’t Work;” and Gordon Crovitz, Wall Street Journal, “In Praise of Surveillance Camera.”
At one point, TOTN host Neal Conan cited the 9-0 vote by the Cambridge City Council in February 2009 to oppose the installation eight surveillance cameras in the city. According to the ACLU press release, the cameras were intended to form part of a network linking Cambridge and eight other Greater Boston communities, funded with a $4.6 million Department of Homeland Security grant. The press release subhead read, “ACLU praises first-in-the-state vote to reject Homeland Security monitoring.”
The younger alleged Boston marathon bomber, Dzohkhar Tsarnaev, lived in Cambridge, and the killing of the MIT police officer and the car hijacking by the two alleged bombers occurred in Cambridge. Listeners were left to draw their own conclusions while Conan mused what the ACLU’s position might be today.
But it was the perspectives of a number of the show’s callers that Orwell was prescient about the government as Big Brother or that law enforcement is gradually strangulating our personal rights and freedoms which has me confounded.
Terms like “Orwellian” and “big brother,” “slippery slope,” “government invasion of privacy” were used. There was discussion about the increasing presence of “law enforcement” in our lives.
The Preamble to the Constitution says unequivocally that “We the People of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” And federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are regulated by the governmental bodies which create and monitor them, bodies of representatives that we the people elect.
If we believe that surveillance has a place in our society with or within limits or if we believe that privacy is inviolate, even in public places, then we the people should work to define the limits or prevent or remove surveillance. That’s only the job of government if we surrender our willingness to assure that our government is “of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Lincoln so eloquently framed it.
If government federal, state or local government surveillance is heading down the slippery slope to Orwellian dystopia, then — to borrow a phrase from a classic Walt Kelley “Pogo” comic strip panel — “we have seen the enemy and it is us,” .