'Big Brother' in America
WASHINGTON Stipulated: The protection of the U.S. capital, its monuments and its centers of authority is a vital national interest.
Early in American history, when faced with a potential rebellion of unpaid officers, one U.S. leader employed an uncharacteristic emotional trick - pretending to be going blind - to appeal to the infuriated military not to march on the capital. He soon had them in tears and in hand. In another time, another leader risked all by turning the capital's defense over to the man most opposed to his political aims, gambling that he could later overcome the nation's gratitude to a man on horseback. In contemporary times, after the Pentagon was hit, the White House targeted and the Capitol anthraxed, Washington again saw itself besieged. But now, in terror of an external threat, U.S. leaders are protecting the capital at the cost of every American's personal freedom.
Surveillance is in the saddle. Responding to the latest Justice Department terror alert, Washington police opened the Joint Operation Command Center of the Synchronized Operations Command Complex (SOCC). In it, 50 officials monitor a wall of 40 video screens showing images of travelers, drivers, residents and pedestrians.
These used to be the Great Unwatched, free people conducting their private lives; now they are under close surveillance by hundreds of hidden cameras. A zoom lens enables the watchers to focus on the face of a tourist walking toward the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial.
The monitoring system is already linked to 200 cameras in public schools. The watchers plan to expand soon into an equal number in the subways and parks. A private firm profits by photographing cars running red lights; those images will also join the surveillance network.
Private cameras in banks and the lobbies and elevators of apartment buildings and hotels will join the system, and residents of nursing homes and hospitals can look forward to an electronic eye in every room. A commercial camera atop a department store in Georgetown catches the faces of shoppers entering malls, to be plugged into omnipresent SOCC. Digital images of the captured faces can be flashed around the world in an instant on the Internet. Married to facial recognition technology and tied in to public and private agencies around the world, an electronic library of hundreds of millions of faces will be created. Terrorists and criminals - as well as unhappy spouses, runaway teens, hermits and other law-abiding people who want to drop out of society for a while - will have no way to get a fresh start.
Is this the kind of world Americans want? The promise is greater safety; the trade-off is government control of individual lives. Personal security may or may not be enhanced by this all-seeing eye and ear, but personal freedom will surely be sharply curtailed. To be watched at all times, especially when doing nothing seriously wrong, is to be afflicted with a creepy feeling. That is what is felt by a convict in an always-lighted cell. It is the pervasive, inescapable feeling of being unfree. As the law now stands, there is no privacy in public places; that's why sports stadiums are called "Snooper Bowls." A whisper to your spouse on your front porch is the public's business, say the courts; and on that intrusive analogy, long-range microphones may soon be allowed to pick up voice vibrations on windowpanes. When your government, employer, landlord, merchant, banker and local sports team gang up to picture, digitize and permanently record your every activity, you are placed under unprecedented control. This is not some alarmist Orwellian scenario; it is here, now, financed by $20 billion last year and $15 billion more this year of federal money appropriated out of sheer fear.
By creating the means to monitor 300 million visits to the United States yearly, this administration and a supine opposition are building a system capable of identifying, tracking and spying on 300 million Americans. So far, the reaction has been a most un-American docility.
This Monday was Presidents' Day. To save the capital and thus the nation, the leader who manipulated his rebellious officers with an emotional pretense of incipient blindness was George Washington, and the one who risked creating a Caesar out of a necessary general was Abraham Lincoln. Neither would sacrifice America's freedom to protect his monument.