If you were among those who pish-poshed the idea that red-light cameras and photo radar would be just the beginning, the cusp of widespread mass surveillance by Big Brother, the revelation that the Metropolitan Police Department intends to erect a citywide surveillance system ought to snap you sharply to attention.
The MPD wants to install a veritable grid of new cameras all over the city and link up hundreds of existing cameras at various locations, such as the Mall and near government buildings and schools so as to keep an eye (many eyes, actually) on all the comings and goings of Americans. A special Joint Operations Command Center has already been set up with 50 officers devoted to watching the cameras that spy on us. They can zoom in, zoom out. When it’s all in place, it’s entirely possible that no corner of the city will be left unmonitored. Some $7 million has already been spent on something called the Synchronized Operations Command Complex all of it on the pretext of fighting terrorism. We confess that the prospect terrifies us.
That ordinary citizens who have done absolutely nothing to warrant this level of scrutiny will nonetheless be the primary objects of the cameras’ unblinking eyes seems not to trouble MPD officials at all. “This allows us to monitor more places and frees up officers to do their work in the neighborhoods,” Steve Gaffigan, who heads the camera project for MPD, told this newspaper. “We don’t zoom in on someone holding hands on Pennsylvania Avenue.” An interesting remark, no doubt meant to reassure us. It doesn’t.
Granting the police authority to put the entire city in a fishbowl simply runs counter to the very fiber of what it means to be an American citizen and to live in a free society. This fighting terrorism shibboleth creates the potential for police abuse, and, more importantly, the end of civil liberties in this country.
“The movie ‘Enemy of the State’ is the closest representation of where we are going with this technology,” Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Jim Keary and Brian DeBose of The Washington Times in yesterday’s editions. The ACLU demands, for a start, public hearings. So does Rep. Connie Morella, the Republican congresswoman from Montgomery County. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America has also denounced the electronic dragnet. “The notion of putting cameras all over [the District] in a combination of public and private areas is a serious problem,” Kevin Watson, spokesman of the law enforcement group, remarked in an epic act of understatement.
Fighting terrorism is crucial, but terrorizing a city by turning the nation’s capital into a prison yard is not the way to do it. Conservatives in and out of Congress, who make a lot of noise about limiting government intrusion into the lives of citizens, ought to be chagrined that liberals are taking the lead on dealing with this outrage. This whole thing must be crushed immediately and firmly before the eyes are upon us.