Freedom From Government Surveillance

I’m a huge Jonah Goldberg fan and generally I agree with him on almost everything. However, his latest column, in which he advocates putting the American public under the watchful and all seeing eye of the government in the name of security, is the exception. Here’s the crux of Goldberg’s piece:

“Take closed-circuit security cameras in public areas, like they have in London. I don’t like the idea that much myself — it just feels icky — so I’m a bit sympathetic to those who oppose such things here. But at the end of the day, opponents are offering excuses — not arguments — for their recalcitrance.

Opponents say it’s an intrusion into privacy. No, it’s not. A policeman — or anybody else not burdened with a restraining order (man, I hate those things) — can watch you in a public area to his or her heart’s content. That’s why they call it a public area. It isn’t any more of an infringement if they watch you with an unhidden camera than if they do it with their naked eyeballs.

Another claim is that cameras won’t prevent attacks. Well, who says? Doesn’t it become slightly more problematic for a terrorist cell to send one of its stooges to his death if his face can be traced back to the mosque from which he came? Isn’t it possible that cameras, combined with other intelligence, may alert authorities that an area’s being cased before the actual attack?

When that line fails, opponents of security cameras fall back on my own sentiment. “It’s just icky” — i.e., it will have a “chilling effect.” “When citizens are being watched by the authorities,” whines Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union, “they are more self-conscious and less freewheeling.”

Actually, there’s very little evidence of this. (Has no one at the ACLU been watching any of the “caught on video” TV shows?) But there is a great deal of evidence that decent citizens become a lot more freewheeling when they think there are no terrorists or criminals around.

Besides, is it so outrageous that preventing a suicide bombing might come at the cost of certain folks moderately curbing their wild, freewheeling ways on the morning train to work? Either that or some accountants will have to live with the fact that somewhere at police headquarters there’s a video of them wearing one of those Carmen Miranda fruit-basket hats on the 8:15 train from the suburbs.

…But the most dishonest argument about security cameras, searches, profiling, etc. — one we hear constantly — is that they won’t stop terrorism. Well, no one thing will stop terrorism. But to conclude, therefore, that we shouldn’t do anything — that’s not an argument, it’s an excuse. And a bad one.”

To me, this is sort of an odd take for a conservative to have on this subject. Aren’t we the guys who’re always complaining about the nanny state? Yet, here we have a conservative who wants to put cameras up everywhere so the nanny state can watch baby’s every move.

Then there’s, “Don’t trust the government:” wasn’t that practically the conservative motto during the Reagan years? Furthermore, didn’t the head of security in the Clinton administration, Craig Livingstone, get caught paging through the FBI files of the Clintons’ political enemies? Do we really want to give people like that the capability to watch what we do, where we go, and who we talk to on a daily basis? That’s certainly not something I support.

On top of that, whatever happened to conservatives getting worried about “the slippery slope?” If you’re talking about issues where we can give up part of our individual privacy to make society safer, there’s a slippery slope that runs from the top of Mt. Everest down into the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Goldberg mentions searches and racial profiling, but there are also red light cameras, national ID cards, requiring all citizens to submit to DNA and drug tests, and soon it will be possible (if it’s not already) to put chips under our skin so the government can always track where we are and identify us. Once people are used to having Big Brother watching their every move, all of the other invasions of privacy become that much easier to accept.

Also, take a look at this line from Goldberg:

“A policeman — or anybody else not burdened with a restraining order (man, I hate those things) — can watch you in a public area to his or her heart’s content. That’s why they call it a public area.”

While that may be true, when was the last time any of us were followed, doggedly, day and night by the same person everywhere we went? For most people, the answer to that question is, “never” and in any case, would you feel comfortable with an ex-boyfriend, a cop, or even just some stranger following 50 steps behind you wherever you went or would that be weird, disquieting, and creepy? Maybe it would be fine with Goldberg, but most people wouldn’t see it that way.

Goldberg also notes that filming your every move isn’t an “intrusion into privacy.” Well, sorry, I have to strongly disagree. “The average commuter in London is filmed 300 times a day,” and make no mistake about it, that’s what would happen here in America as well. Like many conservatives, I don’t believe we have a Constitutional right to privacy, but we do have a right to privacy, and having some nameless, faceless government goon ogling you through a camera all day long violates it as far as I’m concerned.

In the end, perhaps what it comes down to is the instinctive reaction a person has to knowing that the government always has a set of eyes on him. Some people, like Goldberg apparently, may think “Oh good, Big Brother is always looking over my shoulder.” But for many of the rest of us, it’s more like, “Oh God, Big Brother is always watching over my shoulder.” Don’t look for those of us who feel that way to ever support turning this country into a giant government peep show.

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