Civil society, not Big Brother, is the American way

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Article Highlights

  • To stay safe we don't need fewer civil liberties. We need more civil society.

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  • We don't need more government surveillance. We need to maintain robust civil society & public spiritedness.

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  • Government surveillance at every corner reflects the un-American idea that we ought to leave civil order to the police.

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Editor's Note: As the end of 2013 approaches, the Washington Examiner is shining a spotlight on its best columns of the year. Today, it's senior political columnist Timothy P. Carney writing about the reaction to the Boston Marathon bombing less than a week after the event. This column first ran on April 21 and can be found in its original form here.

"I do think we need more cameras," Republican Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. "We have to stay ahead of the terrorists."

"We Need More Cameras, and We Need Them Now," blared the headline at Slate magazine.

As with every terrorist attack and high-profile killing, the Boston bombing has prompted calls for Americans to give up civil liberties for the sake of security. Rather than gun control or airport pat-downs, this time the call is for a Big Brother-like network of police cameras allowing authorities to more closely monitor people who move about the streets.

But the story of the Boston bombers -- the details of their crime and their capture -- makes the opposite argument. We don't need more government surveillance. We need to maintain robust civil society and public spiritedness.

Responding to IRA bombings and then going further after 9/11, London has created a "ring of steel," with chokepoints and thousands of closed-circuit television [CCTV] cameras. Wherever you go in London, Big Brother can watch you.

At Slate, Farhad Manjoo wrote, "Thanks to CCTV cameras, the identities of the bombers and their co-conspirators were determined in a few days' time."

But guess who else determined the identities of bombers in a few days' time, without thousands of police surveillance cameras? U.S., Massachusetts and Boston police.

Law enforcement in Boston used cameras to ID the bombing suspects, but not police cameras. Instead, authorities asked the public to submit all photos and videos of the finish-line area to the FBI, just in case any of them had relevant images. The surveillance videos the FBI posted online of the suspects came from private businesses that use surveillance to punish and deter crime on their property.

So it turns out we already have plenty of cameras on the street. They're not government cameras, but rather cameras owned and operated by private individuals and businesses. In a bout of public spiritedness, these pedestrians and businesses willingly shared their videos with law enforcement. Even if the crime had not been so notorious, the police could expect public cooperation -- what merchant wouldn't share his surveillance tapes to aid in a murder investigation?

So what do we gain by having the government run its own cameras? That would mean the police wouldn't need to turn to the public for help. This would create efficiencies, but it seems the public responded pretty efficiently last week.

Here's one big difference between the sort of cooperative surveillance displayed in Boston last week and London's Big Brother approach: The American system requires the willing participation of the public, or maybe warrants from a judge -- or at least subpoenas.

Give the government eyes on every street corner, and you mostly aid the ability of law enforcement to track us without public cooperation, warrants or legal paperwork. In other words, the British system not only gives government more information about the people, it gives the people less control of their government.

Sure it slows down our law enforcement when we require them to obtain cooperation, but so much of our legal system is exactly that: impediments to law enforcement intended to protect individual liberty and prevent abuse of power.

The standard retort to complaints of government surveillance is, "If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't mind being watched." This mindset is wrong in many ways.

First, it's important to remember that governments and law enforcement agencies often abuse their power. Think of the Jim Crow South. Think of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer using state police (including a helicopter) to track political rival Joe Bruno.

But more importantly, the "what are you hiding?" question should be thrown at the government instead. Why would you want to avoid asking the public or a business for video, or asking a judge for a warrant, unless you were seeking information for improper purposes?

Finally, government surveillance at every corner reflects the un-American idea that we ought to leave civil order to the police. At times Americans have abdicated our responsibilities as citizens. But in crises we rise up.

When terrorist attacks in the U.S. have actually been deterred, it's been because of citizens acting. The shoe bomber was beaten by other passengers. The Times Square bomber was noticed by a vendor. And Flight 93 was brought down by hero passengers.

To stay safe we don't need fewer civil liberties. We need more civil society.

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About the Author


Timothy P.
  • Timothy P. Carney helps direct AEI’s Culture of Competition Project, which examines barriers to competition in all areas of American life, from the economy to the world of ideas. Carney has over a decade of experience as a journalist covering the intersection of politics and economics. His work at AEI focuses on how to reinvigorate a competitive culture in America in which all can reap the benefits of a fair economy.


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