Caught on Tape

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Jul 26, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

Some cities have turned to cameras in high-crime areas, mounting them to watch activities in parks and on dangerous streets. The Los Angeles Times reported in October 2004, “Earlier this year, police began monitoring seven cameras around MacArthur Park in the city’s Westlake district, watching in amazement as crime plummeted, gangs, drug dealers and pimps disappeared, and families with children began returning to the 40-acre expanse in one of the city’s poorest areas.” Chicago has used cameras to make drug busts in real time.

Then there is the last resort of civil libertarians. When no real harm can be demonstrated, they always discern a subtle “chilling effect.” “When citizens are being watched by the authorities,” says Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union, “they are more self-conscious and less freewheeling.” But urban areas, where the cameras are proliferating, are not notably bastions of inhibited behavior. City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald, who is nation’s foremost critic of the excesses of the ACLU, writes, “The only people whom public cameras inhibit are criminals; they liberate the law-abiding public.” When they move a camera out of a troubled neighborhood, Chicago police now get complaints from neighbors, who want pimps and drug dealers to be decidedly inhibited.

The priority of a certain class of civil libertarians is apparently to protect Americans from nonexistent threats to their liberty at the expense of protecting them from real threats to their safety. The New York Civil Liberties Union is considering a federal lawsuit over New York’s new policy of randomly searching the backpacks of subway passengers. Only if terrorists can get on mass-transit systems without any risk of their bags being searched or their images being recorded will they finally rest easy.