Boston Bombing: Increased Surveillance Will Not Prevent Terrorist Attacks

Each terror attack seems to bring with it renewed questions about privacy. How much are we willing to give up to feel safe? Does less privacy mean more safety? Is there such a thing as the perfect equilibrium between privacy and safety? Those are some of the questions being considered this Sunday morning. In particularly by Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press. Brokaw was part of the MTP round table discussion, to which he expressed his belief that, “We don’t have privacy anymore.” 

You’ll hear people say, “We live in a different world.” It’s usually said as a response to enhanced security measures. How should we adapt? What have we learned? How can we make sure this never happens again? Politicians want to be seen as being proactive against terror, so they are usually the first to call for enhanced security in our nation’s cities. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was one of the first to demand more cameras in response to the Boston Bombings. New York Republican Rep. Peter King also called for increased CCTV (closed-circuit television) in urban areas.

New York has 3,000 security cameras in Lower Manhattan alone. London leads the world in its surveillance of residents with 500,000 CCTV cameras in London alone. Farhan Manjoo of Slate called for more security cameras in a column about the case for surveillance. He said that the need for surveillance cameras outweighed “slippery slope” privacy concerns. He cited the use of CCTV in locating the bombers responsible for the July 7, 2005 London bombing. 

Manjo also went onto say, “The best reason to welcome a government network of surveillance cameras is that we’re already being watched—just not systematically, in a way that aids law enforcement. Private security cameras dot every busy street, and people’s personal cameras are everywhere.”

Privacy concerns must be carefully weighed in conjunction with security concerns.The Boston bombers placed the bombs in an area of Boston that was already under surveillance. Photos of the bombing caused many to speculate as to the bombers identity, which resulted in several innocent bystanders being accused of the crimes. The FBI got one of its most important leads from Jeff Bauman (27). The man millions of us saw in photos, with his face ashen, limbs blown off, as he was wheeled to safety by Carlos Arrendondo. When Bauman awoke he asked for a pen and paper, still under the influence of heavy drugs he wrote ‘bag, saw the guy, looked right at me.’ Bauman then provided the FBI with a description of the man he saw drop a backpack and then step away. 

The expectation that surveillance will make us more safe is just that, an expectation. We will unquestioningly see more CCTV setup as the result of this bombing. As we adapt, so too will individuals who seek to do us harm. Cameras might deter some crime from happening but can we really expect it to deter crime by persons who are willing to die for their belief, whatever they may be? 

The scariest and most probable answer, is that it might be impossible to prevent terrorist attacks. They are the result of something much greater, something that is much more difficult to control, individual thought. We cannot expect that cameras alone will prevent all terror attacks because they won’t. You have to go deeper than just superficial solutions, because terrorism itself is not the result of anything superficial. Now, that's not a pleasant thing to hear. We like to assume that individuals who turn out to be terrorists are single-minded individuals, it helps us as we attempt to disassociate ourselves from them as much as possible. It's much easier for us to process if the individual isn't part of our community, so we look for ways to destroy their ties to us. We will call them "Chechen born" or "immigrants", it's all a way to put more space between us and them. That space is an illusion.

Immediately following the attack on Boston, there was an elevation in attacks against Muslims. Why? Because in America, we have already so "othered" Muslim persons that we don’t even see attacks upon them as part of a similar thread of terrorism. We conveniently classify and distinguish crimes based on an individuals association with values we deem to be American or not. It's much easier for us to believe that these people were radicalized by something or someone not American. It also makes for a much nicer soundbite. 

We cling to security measures, we learn them until they become route as we desperately try to feel safer and after some time, we actually think we are. This too is an illusion, a fantasy we create for ourselves because it's impossible to live every day in fear of your own death.  Terrorism is not any one thing. It is multifaceted and we are fools to believe we can ever truly understand or prevent it through the lens of a camera alone.