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The Other Shoe: Massive Surveillance Network in Manhattan

Somebody drove an SUV up slightly onto a curb in New York City over the weekend, tried to light it on fire, and failed.

Maybe the person doing this was trying to scare people (“terrorism” is our modern word for “trying to scare people”). Maybe he was deranged. Maybe he was a prankster. We don’t know.

Nobody was killed. Nobody was hurt. Experts are saying that even if the SUV had successfully been lit on fire, it would only have caused damage in its immediate vicinity.

People have been causing damage to others in their immediate vicinity since people came into existence in axe fights and knife fights and gun fights and bar brawls. More people die from knife fights and gun fights and the like every year in the United States, year in and year out, than have ever died in a year from a terrorist bombing. If we’re going to be worried about any aspect of the SUV event, it should be the part where the SUV drove up onto the curb: 45,316 people died at the hands of a motor vehicle in the United States in 2006 (the last year for which complete data is available — 2007 data comes out later this month).

But no, we’re not going to see massive congressional hearings about bar brawls. We’re not going to get big 2-inch-tall headlines about the investigation of motor vehicle deaths. Instead, I can guarantee you we’re going to get wall-to-wall news coverage for the next month about this guy who tried to burn his SUV in Times Square, and we’re going to get multiple House and Senate hearings in which members of Congress pose for the cameras with incredulous questions about how a guy in Manhattan could possibly drive a car to Times Square with things in it, and how such cars and things could be prevented from entering New York City in the future. Safety! Fear! Protection! The Homeland! Using words like these, watch as politicians jostle for position in the push to turn New York City into our next airport security screening station.

The truth is, it’s already happening. Remember the New York City Surveillance Camera Project’s map showing how impossible it is to cross Manhattan without being photographed? People objected that many of the cameras were private. But in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, thanks to a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, those private and public cameras are being connected into a centralized network to keep the millions of people who live there under constant surveillance. Software to analyze patterns in movement will be able to automatically pick out nervous behavior such as a car circling a block.

It’s “a whole new area for us. It has a lot of promise; in that regard we are very enthusiastic about it,” says Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “There really isn’t a downside to it,” says another NYC official.

No downsides at all if you’re one of the watchers. Worthy of enthusiasm, unless you value your personal privacy and enjoy not living inside a Panopticon.

But it’s worth it, isn’t it? While more than 5,000 Americans die of workplace injuries each year, the quest to ensure that a guy doesn’t drive his SUV up onto the curb and try to light it on fire makes all these little sacrifices of privacy and autonomy and individuality all worthwhile.

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