The four would-be suicide bombers of the botched July 21 attacks in London have a big problem. They were caught on videotape. Their images have been broadcast in Britain and around the world, making their apprehension astronomically more likely than if they had escaped undetected.For this, we have security cameras to thank. London has half a million of them. According to one estimate, a person wandering around London will be filmed 300 times in a day. The city is a pioneer of a trend toward video surveillance that is also sweeping the United States and provoking howls from civil libertarians whose internal clocks are set to make a reference to 1984 every 15 minutes or so. Given the choice, apparently, they would prefer not to have the video of the July 21 bombers, which is an indication of the suicidal otherworldliness of ACLU-style civil libertarianism.
Opponents of video cameras unroll various arguments about the cameras. They complain that the cameras are intrusive and a violation of privacy. But how is it possible to violate someone’s privacy in a park or a subway car? People have a right to privacy only where they have an expectation of privacy, and that is not in public places where things they do are susceptible to viewing by dozens of pairs of eyes. No one should expect pristine privacy while walking in a subway tunnel, let alone while he is running away after having attempted to kill and maim people.
If they can’t brandish the Fourth Amendment, civil libertarians get down to practical policing and claim that cameras don’t really do anything to prevent crime; they only occasionally help solve crime after the fact. Even if this were true, solving one terror attack alone — and therefore perhaps unraveling networks that would attack in the future — makes the cameras worth it.
Cameras won’t deter suicide bombers — what will? — but they can tamp down other criminal activity. Cameras in Britain are credited with discouraging the IRA bombing campaign in the 1990s. On a less serious front, San Francisco — one of many jurisdictions, including New York, Houston and New Jersey, that have cameras in their train systems — saw vandalism drastically decline on subway cars after the installation of surveillance cameras.