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9.11, Video Surveillance, ‘Big Brother’ & Liberty

During the decade since the 9/11 attacks, video equipment have played a major role in the War on Terror.

It has been 10 years since members of al-Qaida seized control of four commercial airliners and committed acts of terrorism that shocked the world.

by J.J. Smith

During the decade since the 9/11 attacks, video equipment—from video surveillance systems to airport scanning devices—have played a major role in the War on Terror. However, there are those who allege that the growth in surveillance cameras is slowly creating a “Big Brother” society. Conversely, there are those who say the cameras are necessary to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens. Are both true?

There does not seem to be any evidence to support that the use of surveillance cameras is creating a Big Brother state. At least not in the way George Orwell described. Large-screen televisions have become the norm in both public and in residences, but the government cannot watch viewers through their TVs (as in Orwell’s novel “1984”).

However, it is probable that increased surveillance in airports and on the streets has deterred some terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. But to prove that will likely take an admission by a captured terrorist that a location’s surveillance cameras prevented an operation from proceeding. Such an admission is not likely.

Those opposed to the government’s use of video surveillance are fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin, who wrote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

I am not sure how being watched by a video camera while on the street, or passing through an airport screening device to board a privately owned commercial airliner, constitutes surrendering “essential liberty,” but that claim has been made. No one has to ride an airplane.

The truth seems to be that despite the growth of video surveillance to prevent terrorism, the United States remains essentially free. While there have been past abuses by federal law enforcement agencies—such as the surveillance and infiltration of the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements of the 1960s and ‘70s—the War on Terror has not led to the government imposing martial law; or the courts turning into star chambers; or the legislatures becoming rubber stamp assemblies; or federal law enforcement taking on the guise of state secret police agencies such as Nazi Germany’s Gestapo or the Soviet Union’s KGB; or the country becoming a totalitarian/authoritarian nightmare (despite the shouting, the Tea Party emerged in an environment of political pluralism).

Going back to Franklin, at the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 he was asked if the country was to be a republic or monarchy; he said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” So it is everyone’s duty—not just those opposed to the use of video cameras— to ensure that the acceptance of video surveillance for security reasons does not become the first nail in a coffin for liberty.