London & The Public Eye
My friend Michele draws my attention to an article in the Washington Examiner that talks about DC expanding public surveillance with a network of cameras, to be modelled on the type of system used in London, which has the largest CCTV system in the world.
She and the paper both complain about the ‘Big Brother’ aspect of the system, and of course they are right to express their concerns, as we should – particularly as London doesn’t have to operate under the same civil liberty protections as US cities.
But there are clear differences the paper doesn’t mention. One is that, as a Londoner, I have lived through a great many terrorist attacks, from the IRA to disaffected Muslim extremists. I remember bomb attacks in Knightsbridge and Park Lane, Oxford Street and King’s Cross – certainly well into double figures – and a variety of hostage situations. To my knowledge, far fewer US cities have experienced terrorism at this level.
The other factor is harder to quantify or even practically explain. Why have Londoners, a generally voluble and protest-oriented lot, been less vocal about the proliferation of cameras? I suspect that it’s partly to do with general attitudes toward the public regulation of behaviour.
When I lived in the US I was always shocked that the police were so quick to arrest and put someone in jail overnight. That was a while back – they may be much less heavy-handed now. But living in King’s Cross, the busiest part of Europe’s busiest city, I’m always amazed by police tolerance for wild public behaviour. On Saturday night around here it’s utter madness, and yet I usually see the local cops hanging out with the drunks in fancy dress who flood out of the tube. There would be no question of arresting someone for having a bit of rowdy fun.
Once I went to court as a witness in an assault case, and the police argued that the assailant should be let off ‘because it was a Saturday night and he was pissed’. I wonder if a side effect of this generally laissez faire attitude is to assume that CCTVs won’t be used to undermine civil liberties, Certainly, it doesn’t seem to be a big topic for concern among friends.
The erosion of civil liberties must never be taken lightly, and there are certainly opportunities for harm here. But I certainly feel safer on the public transport system (which I use every single day – I hardly ever drive a car) and am glad of it. Whether I’d be so comfortable in Washington is another matter entirely.