- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The deployment of a traffic camera a day keeps the mortician away in the nation’s Jersey barrier capital, or so goes the justification to expand the intrusive practice.

We all have our privacy threshold, some more liberal than others, but the city is on pace to test the resolve of the most open-minded with its seeming addiction to snapping and fining. More cameras are coming our way, predictably enough, because it is the low-maintenance police work that keeps on filling city coffers.

Speeders and red-light runners are not a trivial matter, no doubt, their threat to law-abiding motorists and pedestrians real enough. Yet there are threats everywhere, and the growing urge to eliminate all threats with a camera is unsettling.

We seem to want it both ways. We cherish our privacy. Yet we want to be free of all threats, which, of course, is impossible.

Residents of the increasingly barricaded city are acquiescing to the snooping eye of government, if partly out of fear or just plain indifference.

Those who rally in favor of cameras point to lives saved, which is a point intended to silence debate, not engage it. And this is just fine with city officials, as they go about decorating the city with more and more cameras. We may not live in a police state, but we sure do live in a camera state.

Smile, Washingtonians, you are on a camera somewhere.

No, this is not the Washington of our parents. This is the post-September 11 Washington of high-tech wizardry and apocalyptic bunkering.

Someone is watching you along the Mall. Someone is filming your movements. You are under suspicion until proven innocent.

The city has slowed the stretch of MacArthur Boulevard in Palisades to a crawl, and that is on its good days. It is now a strip best to be avoided unless you live there.

The political mind-set of the day is to dump technology on a problem, with no seeming thought on the loss to the public.

If we keep adding Jersey barriers and cameras to the city, have the terrorists won? Is that a moat being built around the Washington Monument? Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House is forever lost. Ours is becoming sci-fi Washington.

It is hard to term the motivation of city officials as altruistic, considering all the millions of dollars involved. Being a do-gooder never has been so lucrative, more so if the contract holders exceed their monthly citation limit. Efficiency has its perks.

Where all this ends is anyone’s guess. Even those who support red-light and speed cameras have a tipping point. They probably would not want a camera in their vehicle, although the practice undoubtedly would save lives.

Not to raise an old stereotype — some have a kernel of truth in them — but a woman recently ran a red light at the corner of Calvert Street and Tunlaw Road NW. This was perfectly understandable, because she was peering into her rearview mirror while applying lipstick.

Some might use the lipstick woman as a reason to plead for a camera there, which is fine in that limited context.

But again, the larger point is this: As we agree to more and more cameras, where are we going with this practice? Are we all destined to be part of this big, fat reality show, a 24/7 fine fest that chronicles our worst habits? For now, city officials are content to act in incremental ways. An additional five speed cameras and 11 red-light cameras are on the way, in place by July, perhaps in a neighborhood near you.

Good luck if you are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic and get caught in an intersection with a red-light camera.

Pay up or waste a day trying to explain it.

So be safe out there.

And as you motor along the city’s thoroughfares, remember to say “Cheese.”

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