What's wrong with being under surveillance in public?

Imagine what would have happened if the Lord & Taylor closed-circuit TV cameras weren't there to capture the images of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers.

They probably would still be on the loose. They might have killed or wounded dozens of tourists and New Yorkers in Times Square. Their successful escape could have energized other terrorists to target crowds in other cities.

We owe great thanks to whoever decided to install and turn on those department store cameras. No telling how long, if ever,

The Lord & Taylor camera that captured the image of the Boston Marathon bombers

The Lord & Taylor camera that captured the image of the Boston Marathon bombers

it would have taken to track down the suspected bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan. Thanks to those cameras, the wounded Dzhokhar now is imprisoned in Fort Devens, about an hour's drive from Boston, and Tamerlan occupies a slab in a state morgue.

If they hadn't seen their mugs recorded by the Lord & Taylor cameras, the brothers might not have stumbled into the worst escape plan ever conceived, seemingly putting every lawman in the state on their tails.

Yet, objections to surveillance cameras on public streets and properties remain. Incredibly so.

Matt Stroud, writing in theverge.com, scoffed that the cameras failed to stop the bombings: "The Boston Marathon bombing was the first time America has experienced a high-profile terrorist attack in the age of omnipresent Internet connectivity, in an environment of near-ubiquitous surveillance."

Catching the "bad guys … was never the point of FEMA's (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Homeland Security Grant Program," he wrote. "The main goal was to 'protect against' and to prevent terrorist attacks in the first place. The marathon bombings represented the first real test of that program. And it failed."

Sour grapes. And not on point.

sidewalkIronically, his argument makes the case for even better and more expansive surveillance. For example, stopping the Tsarnaev brothers before they allegedly set off their bombs would have required a face-recognition system that would have matched the brothers with a huge database of suspected terrorists in which at least one reportedly was included.

Such a system reminds me of Harold Finch's "machine" that regularly spits out the Social Security number of someone in danger in the CBS crime drama "Person of Interest." Says Finch, played by Michael Emerson, that creepy guy from the ABC series "Lost," "You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would."

But such a machine, if it were possible, isn't the issue here. If closed-circuit TV only manages to nail the mass murderers after the fact, it's good enough for me. But even that riles some civil libertarians who have decided that the right to privacy on a public street is a greater right than your right to be safe and secure.

They have argued, in effect, that watching people do public things in public places is a "grave" violation of our privacy rights. (In the pantheon of horribles, "grave" is ranked one step worse than "awful" and just behind "dreadful.")

A raft of studies, say some civil libertarians, prove that surveillance cameras do not reduce crime, although other studies say they do. Some civil libertarians would go so far as to say that even your right to anonymity and dignity in public places trumps everyone's right to safety and security.

Strikes me that if you don't want your dignity dirtied by getting photographed while picking your nose on the sidewalk, then don't pick you nose on the sidewalk. If you don't want your corpulent butt turning up on an outdoor video recording the sea of corpulent butts so prevalent these days, then maybe it's time to get rid of that corpulent butt. And what do we do about all those tourists snapping pictures from the top of a tour bus of you trying to slip into a saloon for an afternoon buzz — confiscate their cameras?

Even San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr wants more surveillance cameras after the Boston bombings. In San Francisco — can you imagine?

Reflecting the good sense of Americans, a Rasmussen Report finds that 70 percent favor use of surveillance cameras in public places. Getting unsettled about government and private sector cameras in the public square has, overnight, become a dead issue.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune

Subscribe to The Barbershop


Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.


Leave a comment
  • The terrorists have won.

Leave a comment

  • Advertisement:
  • Advertisement:
  • ChicagoNow is full of win

    Welcome to ChicagoNow.

    Meet our bloggers,
    post comments, or
    pitch your blog idea.

  • Visit my new website

    I'm a freelance writer, editor and author. I can help you with a wide variety of projects. Check out my new website at www.dennisbyrne.net

  • Subscribe to The Barbershop

    Enter your email address:

    Delivered by FeedBurner

  • Dennis Byrne’s Facebook Fan Page

  • Like me on Facebook

  • Our National Debt

  • Twitter

  • Tags

  • Recent Comments

    • It was pointed out that in 1968, the Hong Kong flu killed over 100,000 in the US and over a…
      Read the story | Reply to this comment
    • After 20 years of science courses and 40 years of practice, I can tell you the “science” always changes and…
      Read the story | Reply to this comment
    • Yes Dennis! and if you weren't retired this would have appeared in the back of the obituaries, probably in Braille.…
      Read the story | Reply to this comment
    • But don't our doctors and nurses follow the science? And if we don't follow the science, what does that leave…
      Read the story | Reply to this comment
    • Thanks for sharing this wonderful information lowes employee portal
      Read the story | Reply to this comment
  • /Users/dennisby/Desktop/trailer.mp4
  • Advertisement: