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The Gift of Life

Transparency and totalitarianism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

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.

And, believe me, Americans do feel shaken. Shaken down. Nickeled and dimed.

But there is a deeper reason for Americans’ increasing disgust with government spying, and today’s red-light camera issue perfectly illuminates it. Some rules we want strictly enforced, because the harm done and rights violated are clear and unassailable. We want every murderer caught; we want every fraudster tracked down. But traffic rules are there to provide some ground-rules for traffic that help us on average. If you roll through a stop sign at three in the morning, in lonely streets, no harm is possible. Rolling through them at rush hour, with school buses on the road, that’s another story. Between these two extremes, where the rule has scant probability of doing good and where the rule is almost 100 percent necessary, there is a whole spectrum of probabilities. And, in the context of varying probability of danger even when motorists (or pedestrians, for that matter) fail to comply completely, most infractions of the law will yield no harm.

So, in this context, piecemeal, intermittent enforcement seems apt. If you are sometimes caught for your carelessness and inattention, you tend to be fine with that. But if you are caught every time, it seems way out of whack with the danger, since in most cases, the probability will be low.

There’s a certain type of mind, of course, that doesn’t understand this probabilistic, random aspect to life, and will always push for constant enforcement . . . and take every instance of injury or fatality as an example of the need for total enforcement.

Trouble is, that kind of impulse yields to totalitarian oversight. There is a reason why voters vote down red-light cameras. It’s not just simple self-interest. It’s not heedlessness of safety rules.

It’s hatred for totalitarianism.

That’s why the people are fighting back. The zero tolerance mentality that infected America from the Nixon era to the present day is still with us, but is increasingly under attack. It is being battled at the fundamental level, where we debate “what is the role for government in society?”

On the other hand, the citizens’ lens has also exploded in the YouTube culture. It’s not just Big Brother that has cameras. We all do. In our phones, in our shirt pockets, in our cars.

And we are using them. Recording much of what we see, including police overkill, including public servant misconduct.

The age started with the Rodney King recording, where a dangerous motorist was brutally stomped on by police — many police — and the event was videotaped. The immediate results were less than pleasant, since much of the fallout diverged on the basis of race.

But since then, as private video sharing has grown in popularity, conduct and misconduct by public servants is seeing the light of day. We are reaching the Age of Transparency.

Predictably, the authorities are striking back.

Arrests of citizens recording police actions is one of the most interesting ongoing stories of the day. Every week a new example pops into view. Last week, police at a public meeting arrested two journalists — one for photographing the event, the other for video-recording the first journalist’s arrest. The charges initially brought against the two were absurd, as Judge Andrew Napolitano pointed out on his great Fox program Freedom Watch. Neither behaved in a “disorderly” way (you can see for yourself, on YouTube), and, since the event was a public meeting, neither engaged in “unlawful entry.” Napolitano asked “what kind of a government do we have that watches us with cameras everywhere we go, but recoils in horror and uses force when we try to watch the government with cameras?”

The previous week’s example was police abandoning a nabbed motorist to arrest a woman “making them feel unsafe” by recording them from the safety of her own lawn.

Hysterical police-state over-reaction won’t go away until officials and police realize that people do have First Amendment rights, and that they are, themselves, civil servants, not Lords of the Realm.

Government cameras on citizens? Dangerous. Citizen lenses trained on government? Essential safety devices.

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