Even as the Justice Department warned, for the umpteenth time, of an “imminent” terrorist attack last week, the Washington. D.C., police force cranked into action. The cops didn’t catch any terrorists, but through the vast and nearly ubiquitous system of police surveillance cameras that clicked into operation the same day Justice was warning about terrorism, they were able to observe the entirely innocent actions of thousands of law-abiding citizens.
The new system inaugurated in the nation’s capital keeps an eye—literally, in fact quite a number of eyes—on “key federal buildings” and other important places in the city. As the Wall Street Journal described it, “The new system will link hundreds of cameras that already monitor mass-transit stations, monuments and schools with new digital cameras that will be installed to watch over streets, shopping areas and neighborhoods.” Actually, the cops are about 18 years late.
In George Orwell’s 1984, you didn’t watch television—the television watched you. The essence of Orwell’s portrayal of a perfect totalitarian regime was precisely that it had succeeded in abolishing privacy and thereby in manipulating the minds, memories and emotions of its subjects. What the Washington police are doing with their cameras is merely the first step toward the same outcome.
“We don’t have enough officers to watch everything,” Steve Gaffigan, the official in charge of the camera cops, told the Washington Times.Therefore, they’ve got to have the surveillance system. Someone should explain to Mr. Gaffigan that there’s a reason the cops don’t have “enough” officers. In a free society, police aren’t supposed to “watch everything,” and therefore the number of policemen is kept small. What the police are supposed to do is arrest people who break the law—that’s all. They don’t have to “fight crime,” “wage war on crime,” “prevent crime,” or improve society or human nature. Their sole purpose is to enforce the law, which is why we still call them “law enforcement.”
In the last century, the purpose of the police, like the purposes of many other public institutions, changed. Just as the purpose of government itself is no longer merely to defend the nation and enforce the law but rather to provide security, solve social problems, manage conflicts and offer therapy for social “pathologies” like spanking your children, so the purpose of the police is now to make sure no one anywhere behaves in violation of the imposed norms.
The Times ran a photograph of one of the new spy cameras on top of the Banana Republic store overlooking the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. That happens to be the heart of Georgetown, one of the busiest (at all times of night or day) locations in the city. The chances of serious crimes like muggings or murder being committed in that area are minuscule. The purpose of the cameras is therefore quite clearly not to prevent crime.
If this kind of surveillance were happening only in Washington, it might be harmless enough. But in fact, as the Journal pointed out, it’s hardly unique. “Many American police agencies already use some video surveillance of public spaces,” and of course private institutions—apartment buildings, banks, supermarkets, department stores—use surveillance cameras all the time. “But the plans in Washington go far beyond what is in use in other American cities,” the Journal also noted.
Quite bluntly, the real purpose, even if the police themselves don’t grasp it, which is likely, is to habituate law-abiding citizens to being watched all the time. Indeed, we already are habituated to it. Americans a couple of generations ago would have marched on city hall in protest of the police surveillance system.Now it barely makes the news.
Of course, the police assure everyone that the system won’t be used for sinister purposes, that it won’t even be used all the time—only sometimes when the police want to use it. “We don’t zoom in on someone holding hands on Pennsylvania Avenue,” Mr. Gaffigan protested. “The way we are using it does not violate anyone’s rights.” Swell.
But “You are building in a surveillance infrastructure,” says Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU, “and how it’s used now is not likely how it’s going to be used two years from now or five years from now.” For once, the ACLU is right.
The whole point about freedom and the destruction thereof is that it usually doesn’t vanish overnight. It vanishes slowly, as those who have it are habituated to losing it and are fed plausible (as well as implausible) reasons why they don’t really need it anyway, until, like the characters in 1984, they have totally forgotten they ever had it at all and have even forgotten what freedom is. The District’s omnipresent spy cameras merely drag Americans a bit closer toward Orwell’s year.