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Jewish World Review July 10, 2001 / 19 Tamuz, 5761

Dave Shiflett

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Consumer Reports

Don’t Snoop on Me -- THERE'S nothing like having a government informer around to make one feel secure — if one happens to be a "law and order" fanatic, or an unusually pathetic exhibitionist. For the rest of us, the presence of official snoops has the aroma of East Germany, circa 1980, even if the snoop is a camera mounted at a stoplight "for our own safety."

While I no longer drive to work, it is easy to imagine the aggravation these cameras create in the souls of fellow citizens. Many commuters, after all, are motoring to a job with a fair amount of background aggravation — an incompetent boss, a less than flattering salary, a malignant or malodorous co-worker or two, plus the aggravation of the work itself.

They carry other baggage as well: thoughts of a nagging or perhaps carousing spouse, fears their children may be flirting with felonious behavior, clothes anxiety, receding gums, expanding moles, a knock in the engine, and the various other fears of our day, including the suspicion that buttering the morning toast may have been an act of reckless endangerment.

With the mind so occupied, it is easy to pass through the first blushes of a red light, and at some intersections that can result in a camera-produced ticket. Reports say these fines are always cheaper than the cost of appearing in court, signaling that yet one more shakedown is underway. The price is apparently rising. "Montgomery County, Maryland, has issued 54,000 camera citations since 1999 and county leaders now want to raise the fine for running a red light to $250 from $75," the Wall Street Journal tells us.

But the problem is much greater than a fine. Surveillance cameras are creating what an enterprising shyster might call a "hostile living environment." The snooping isn't restricted to stoplight surveillance, after all. In Tampa, authorities have set up cameras in public places to track criminals. Everyone who wanders into the targeted area is under surveillance. When you add the innumerable cameras placed by private companies and individuals at homes and businesses, it's reasonable to say that it is getting difficult to go places in America that aren't under the electronic eye.

All of which is nearly enough to create sympathy for those poor fools who worry continuously about the presence of microwaves in the atmosphere. That brand of maniac, as we know, worries that those waves interfere with the natural operation of his brain. The presence of surveillance cameras constitutes an interference with the natural mobility of free people. After all, how free are you if The Man is always looking over your shoulder?

Unfortunately, one fears that a growing number of Americans don't mind being snooped upon in this fashion. These individuals (term loosely applied) have succumbed to the view that government is there to take care of them, and that almost anything done that may stretch out their years is commendable and worthy of support. A county commissioner of Palm Beach County, Florida, put it this way: "If Big Brother saves lives, then I'm happy to be Big Brother."

That, of course, is a deeply malignant point of view. It holds that "public safety" is justification for nearly any excess, intrigue, and prohibition. That commissioner needs a good flogging, though higher office is probably the more likely reward.

Cameras, to be sure, don't have quite the shock value of posting a human snoop at every stoplight and around town squares. Like most people, I have often wished a cop were nearby when someone roars through a ripe red light. But the fact is, no sane person wants a cop on every corner — or indeed wants all the laws enforced, to the letter or otherwise. Many of us break laws all the time. If we were pegged for each offense we commit (the list of possibilities is no doubt quite long), our fines might easily match our mortgages.

To name a few: It has been pointed out the if using cameras to catch speeders and light-runners is acceptable, then so should it be allowable to post cameras to catch smokers in areas (towns, cities) where smoking is prohibited. I would add that in some places, cursing has been outlawed, making it acceptable to place cameras and microphones about to catch offenders. With the zero-tolerance movement in full fester, the level of surveillance of young people could easily reach saturation stage, with horrendously unfair judgments and punishments rendered against those who spoke in a way authorities deem threatening.

Moralists tell us that once inner restraints are lost, the only way to control people is through outside forces. Hanging cameras is one way of asserting control, and America is increasingly and frightfully well hung.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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11/23/00: Democracy may be under siege, but now comes the fun
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11/15/00: Now what will we do for fun?

© 2000, Dave Shiflett