Paul Jacob

The camera eye is not minatory. It is not, by itself, menacing, or evil. It merely aims, focuses, and (if the mechanisms behind it are sound) records.

And yet, in some contexts, it seems alien, like the red orb of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or invasive, like the public cameras all over Britain, and increasingly in these United States.

Personally, I’ve never minded the cameras in 7-Eleven, or the uptown mall. I know they are recording my sauntering gait through their purview. But, they record everybody, and I am sure that the eyes behind those cameras glaze over at my torso and shadow. Nothing to see here. I move along. Somewhere, in secret rooms now or later, the eyes move on, too.

Some folks get freaked out about this, use words like “Big Brother.” But I’m afraid my suspicions rise only when those cameras are run by governments. The local mall presents no threat. They want me to be safe, so that I can buy more stuff.

I wish I could say the same of our governments.

But, something there is in government that doesn’t respect my autonomy. Because too many laws are bad laws, and because the people enforcing those laws have monopoly privileges, too often those in authority turn antagonistic.

In the context of our “throw-the-book-at-em” culture, I don’t want our streets and byways to be filled by government cameras, constantly spying.

It turns out, most voting Americans don’t want that, either. In every jurisdiction in the union where red-light cameras have been put up for a vote, they’ve been voted down.

The red-light camera is, in case you are not familiar, one of those ostensible safety measures that turn invasive and malign pretty easily. At first blush, you might think that an increase in eyes on intersections would be a good thing. A lot of cars crash at intersections. Too many people die from such crashes.

But it becomes quite clear that the innocent cause of “safety first and foremost” doesn’t stay in focus. Many locales begin to issue citations for minor infractions to make the cameras pay. Worse yet, many municipalities with red-light cameras reduced their yellow-light durations after the cameras were installed. This, to increase the number of people nabbed, along with their checkbooks.

Typical government indecency, that. It’s why Americans increasingly distrust those in power. Something billed as a safety measure quickly becomes a shake-down racket.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.