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OP-ED: New York’s Surveillance Culture & the Boston bombing

NYC History NYC Story

The Boston marathon bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers was a stark & painful reminder of the modern-day Security adage “It’s not a matter of if we’re attacked, but when.” And the truth is that we have been attacked multiple times in the past two years by enemies who were not foreign but domestic. Names like Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughtner and Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev.

The biggest difference between the Boston bombing and the mass shootings wasn’t ideology or the “foreignness” of the culprits’ surname but their method of attack. In any mass shooting, there is no ‘who-done-it’ factor; the perpetrator is the one holding the gun. In the immediacy following the Boston explosions, we all wanted to know 1) who attacked us and 2) if they were going to attack again. And suddenly, the ubiquity of security footage around the finish line became one of our most important tools in responding to these killers.

New York has had to accept (in some cases grudgingly) the ubiquitous nature of NYPD security cameras throughout our city. Having the largest, best equipped, best trained and most vigilant police force in the country is a mixed blessing. We have the comfort of knowing that our cops are constantly on the lookout for threats to our common safety and have foiled multiple terror attempts on our city. The downside is a semi-fascistic presence of uniformed “soldiers” who claim the right to stop and frisk anyone they feel “fit a profile,” 90% of which are our black and Latino citizens.

In the 48 hours following the explosions that killed and wounded scores of Boston citizens, this security footage was essential. In an Orwellian nightmare dystopia, “Big Brother” would have seen and known everything before it happened and probably would have locked up the Tsarnaev brothers for “thought crime,” preventing the bombing at the immeasurable cost of all of our civil liberties.

Boston Bombing OP-ED

This doesn’t look anything like MY Big Brother…Where’s the moustache and wacky grin?

“Big Brother” didn’t see it happening. In turn, we had to scramble to put together the pieces to figure out who done it. The public’s first “suspects” were young men who had absolutely nothing to do with the bombing, merely fit a certain race-fueled “profile” and were unjustly plastered on the cover of the always culturally sensitive NY Post tabloid with the headline “Bag Men.” Whoops. Big Brother’s first act was getting it wrong.

Boston Bombing OP-ED

NY Post does it again. Alexander Hamilton would be ashamed.

Who then did Big Brother turn to for more data? Why… all of us, of course! In a chaotic and disjointed jumble of information, the commenters on popular social-media site Reddit helped piece together the events leading up to the bombing. Many of these armchair detectives learned crime-scene analysis from tv shows like CSI and Law & Order. Their most essential source of data wasn’t official security footage, but the thousands and thousands of pictures taken by you, me, and everyone who posts cell-phone photos on the internet. In a manner that George Orwell never predicted, surveillance culture has been fully democratized.

We have seen Big Brother… and it is us.

Sure, Orwell and his contemporary dystopians predicted that we would all be “implanted” with devices that would be used to keep track of our everyday movements. However, they never imagined that we would be lining up for hours for the privilege to pay $400 dollars apiece for them! Having a perpetual virtual presence via email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and GPS has become an expectation of our 21st century culture. By choosing to be part of an online social presence, you are implicitly consenting to the surveillance that goes with it. People are welcome to reject this culture, deleting all of their social media accounts and use a GPS-free flip phone (or heaven forbid, a land-line!) but they do so at the risk of being left behind in a 21st century economy. Regardless, people still have that choice.

Boston Bombing OP-ED

The ultimate tool in public surveillance technology

There is still the race-fueled problems of the official authorities monitoring our black, Latino and Muslim communities which is an absolute violation of civil liberties. It only serves to reinforce the sense that in a nation where we are all supposed to be born with certain inalienable rights, some people are still reminded daily that they were never intended to be part of “The American dream.”

But I agree with Mayor Michael Bloomberg that, for better or worse, the cameras are here to stay. And regardless of how many cameras and endless hours of footage they will capture, we don’t need to worry about our every move being watched by some government official. There will never be enough budget for the man-hours necessary to watch every single citizen, every moment of the day. Quite simply, ain’t nobody got time for that. We’ll leave that job to our Facebook friends.

I only hope that as the cameras get more plentiful, law enforcement can see in advance who to watch and who to leave alone. Maybe this can bring an end to far too many young men being stopped by other (uniformed) young men simply for “matching a profile.” Lanza, Loughtner, Holmes and the Tsarnaevs didn’t “fit a profile” and we didn’t stop them until it was too late.

By Gideon Levy