Last week’s nightmare in Boston makes for an interesting argument about the state of security in the United States at the moment, and the value in improving that security for all American citizens. Though it’s hard to say the bombing at the Boston Marathon wouldn’t have happened if security had been tighter, it is easy to say it would have been significantly more difficult to have happened… that the perpetrators would have been likely captured or killed sooner… and that the American public is behind law enforcement when it comes to protecting our skins.
During the Friday efforts to catch the younger Tsarnaev, I was watching NBC news coverage. At one point, a photo was shown on camera, a shot taken from Google’s “street view” maps, showing the boat in which the bomber was hidden, in the homeowners’ driveway. Brian Williams, covering the event, noted the photo and said in an offhand way: “Proof that there is no privacy anymore.”
The Boston police, FBI, Diplomatic Security and Homeland Security used sophisticated equipment to find and catch the Tsarnaevs, including surveillance cameras on the scene, photo augmentation software, informational databases that allowed the authorities to identify the Tsarnaevs, and crisis communications systems to coordinate their efforts. As good as all of this was, one of the Tsarnaevs still managed to escape the cordon set for him after a gunfight. It was the alertness of a private citizen, who discovered Tsarnaev’s hiding place and called authorities, that cornered Tsarnaev a second time. Details of the capture at this point are sketchy, but Tsarnaev was pinpointed with infra-red cameras from a surveillance helicopter, and finally captured alive and seriously wounded by police and FBI agents.
The photo of the boat out in plain site in the driveway—a photo that could have been taken by any passerby on the street—had no impact on the investigation or subsequent capture of Tsarnaev, and hardly constituted an invasion of privacy; it was more a case of the media showing off. But this is how people in America like to talk about the pervasiveness of security: An irrational desire for things that we have right out in public to be considered private; an official ignorance of what we purposely put right under other people’s noses.
But even as we criticize our government’s refusal to consider our public lives to be private lives; when it comes down to protecting our lives, we stand behind the government and applaud all efforts to bring criminals to justice. No one in Boston today is arguing against the use of street surveillance cameras, infra-red cameras on choppers, identity databases and cross-organizational sharing, or the measures taken by authorities to catch the Tsarnaevs. On the contrary, Bostonians lined up on the streets to literally and publicly applaud their law enforcement agencies as they drove away from Franklin Street after the capture was over. And Americans nationwide would have been happy to stand with them.
Many hard lessons can be quickly forgotten, as our Senate’s disgraceful actions to neuter gun control efforts this week demonstrated (apparently, there is one area where our government is willing to consider our public lives to be private… especially when a lobbyist pays them to do so). But maybe Boston’s ordeal will serve to galvanize the country, to make sure people don’t forget so soon that we’re fighting to protect Americans… and that tighter national security measures are the best way to insure that protection.
I’m beginning to suspect, however, that it will take a Boston-scale event on the steps of the Capitol to accomplish that…
My novel Sarcology describes an America in which concerns for security and protection have led some areas and city districts to enact strong security and surveillance measures to protect its citizens. And although they are largely effective, some of the public who feels their liberties are threatened by the surveillance systems necessary for protection have encouraged some areas to ignore almost all security measures to salve their personal privacy concerns. I can easily imagine such “all or nothing” security zones to be commonplace in our future, providing the public with varying levels of security and protection as they desire.