Guns, Politics, and Freedom
November 8, 2000

Watching me, watching you

By F. Paul Valone


The following ran in The Charlotte Observer on (I think) November 8, 2000.



"You had to live-did live, from habit that became instinct-in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." -- George Orwell, "1984."


Psst.  It's me.  Just read the newspaper.  Don't talk, don't look around, and for Heaven's sake don't scratch anywhere you don't want the world to see.


They might be watching.


And who is "They?"  Why, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, of course.


When Charlotte joined other cities in placing cameras at intersections to nab red light runners, I played good sport.  They are, after all, in the interest of public safety.  And I was only mildly irked when I read of plans to use "radar cameras" to monitor speeding.


But then a weekly called The Leader described how police will begin placing video surveillance cameras on buildings in uptown Charlotte.  Fertilized by a Local Law Enforcement Block Grant, surveillance cameras will begin sprouting like poison mushrooms atop Charlotte's Government Center, International Trade Center, Gateway Center, First Union Center, and elsewhere, all in the avowed interest of protecting you.  Initially, nine cameras will monitor parking lots and decks and other public areas.


Pity the C.M.P.D. which, according to The Leader, laments that it lacks enough officers to conduct full-time surveillance.  Perhaps they should take lessons from Britain, which has made a fine art of scrutinizing its subjects.


Having long used cameras to surveil the people of London, the ever-friendly Newham Bobbies last year began using the "Mandrake" system.  Designed to eventually comprise 240 fixed and mobile cameras in shopping centers, subway stations, underpasses and parking lots, the system solves manpower problems by using computer software capable of recognizing people's faces.


"Initially, the system is likely to be used to prevent mugging and shoplifting," boasted the London Observer Service, adding that "known or suspected pedophiles may also be scanned into the computer."


One law enforcement officer wants cameras in soccer stadiums: "The police could decide to load images of hooligans onto the database before a big match.  That way we can stop them getting near the ground at all."


Behold your future: Using computerized video surveillance to restrict activities of people who have not yet committed crimes.


Like most people, you probably don't want others-particularly governmental others-videotaping you wiping your nose on your sleeve (not that you would ever do such a thing). 


But we should admit the plan does have its attractions.  Americans like to be coddled.  And after 200 plus years of fat, dumb, happy Democracy, we seem bent on sacrificing our hard-wrought freedoms for what Benjamin Franklin disdained as "a little temporary safety."


Besides, governmental bodies being the creeping Kudzu they are, the odds of stopping widespread public surveillance probably approach zero anyway.


So let's compromise.  People might like to know when they are being monitored.  After all, their likeness could end up in court, on TV or the wall of a precinct locker room.  So why not introduce legislation in the General Assembly requiring responsible politicians (is that an oxymoron?) to post notice in monitored areas, reminding people to comb their hair and smile?  We'll call it the "Big Brother Protection Act."


And what form might such notice take?  Imagine, if you will, the monstrous image of Charlotte's fine Mayor – dubbed with those eyes that follow you everywhere – above the caption "Pat McCrory is watching you."


Beyond notifying criminals that mischief might land them in jail, police get their omnipotence, citizens can decide for themselves where not to go, and politicians get their mug posted far and wide (in my experience, the goal of every politician who's ever lived).


According to the American left, we have much to learn from the Brits about running a society.  England has all but terminated private gun ownership (never mind that violence has soared ever since), solves crimes through DNA dragnets which coerce thousands into "voluntarily" submitting samples (a technique the FBI is working hard to emulate), and has adopted the quaint practice of detaining suspects without formalities like warrants.


In a country long accustomed to governmental thumbscrews, even civil libertarians can't get it right.  Said Liz Parratt of a British group calling itself Liberty, "There is a balance to be struck between crime prevention and our individual and collective freedoms."  Wrong, Liz.  Only individuals have freedoms, and only police states are "collective."


But all that is premature.  For now, Big Pat will have to make do with watching your every move in uptown Charlotte.