Civil Liberties and Counter-Terror: In Megacities, the Latter Wins Out

In the post-9/11 era, there has been a perpetual struggle for governments to both protect citizens from terrorism and honor cherished civil liberties.

In small cities, balancing citizens’ freedoms and government protection can be easily achieved. Without the looming threat of terrorist activity, there is less ambiguity of where civil liberties end and effective prevention begins. However, the real or perceived dangers to target-rich megacities such as London and New York are too great to leave any technological advancement unused. These cities must take all legal precautionary measures to protect its citizens, for the backlash of not employing every tactic in the wake of a catastrophic terror event is too great.

 In the months and years following September 11, counterterrorism and homeland security became buzzwords in law enforcement circles, where preventing the next surprise attack trumped all civil liberty concerns. Cities worldwide have since begun to develop security rings around high-risk areas that include both police personnel and sophisticated monitoring technology.  These “rings” are modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel,” designed in the 1990s to thwart bombings by the Irish Republican Army.

 Today, London’s “Ring of Steel,” the global paradigm for wall-to-wall security, employs license plate recognition cameras, an extensive closed-circuit television system and physical barriers to thwart terrorism. London’s comprehensive security system, which includes some one million cameras throughout the City, has been attributed with both connecting important intelligence pieces that proactively fight terrorism and decreasing overall street crime.  

 In 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg traveled across the Atlantic to learn more about London’s terror-prevention tactics, especially the city’s “Ring of Steel.” New York’s “Lower Manhattan Security Initiative,” a $200 million project, is similar in structure to the London model. Launched in August 2008, this “ring” relies on 3,000 public and private surveillance cameras, an intricate “dirty bomb” detection system and 100 license plate readers to monitor suspicious activity both in lower Manhattan and in Midtown. These areas have both been sites of attacks (the foiled Times Square bombing in 2010) and continue to be high-profile targets.

 Many, in both England and the U.S., believe that these tactics are overzealous, poorly regulated and an infringement on civil liberties.  In England, where some four million closed circuit television cameras are currently in operation, a handful of civil liberties groups have cautioned that the country is at-risk for devolving into a police state; these groups note that the average Londoner is filmed on surveillance cameras approximately 300 times a day. Stateside, to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 the ACLU released an extensive report titled “A Call to Courage: Reclaiming Our Liberties 10 Years After 9/11,” with a chapter dedicated to combating “a massive and unchecked surveillance society.”

 Yet, in an age where the global terrorism network is abuzz with activity and the threat of domestic terrorism still lingers, governing bodies and police forces in high profile areas have chosen, most believe wisely, to utilize all of the tools in their technological arsenal. Without these mechanisms in place, these global icons and societies as a whole are at an enormous risk, a risk that could seriously hinder growth and development and jeopardize countless lives. 

Photo Credit: Zero One