April 19, 2013 10:34:37 AM
It wasn't all that long ago that the idea of posting surveillance cameras in public places was considered as some sort of Orwellian nightmare come true as fears emerged of an ubiquitous "Big Brother" spying on the activities of law-abiding citizens.
No one is likely complaining about that infringement on privacy this morning as law enforcement officers in the Boston area close in on the remaining suspect in Monday's Boston Marathon bombings.
One suspect was killed in a shootout Thursday night. The other is the subject of a man-hunt in a Boston suburb that seems certain to result in an imminent capture. All of this transpired within hours of the moment the FBI broadcast photos of the two suspects captured on a surveillance camera near the scene of the bombings. While it is difficult to know if the suspects would have been identified without that footage, it seems obvious that the video expedited the investigation.
As the search progressed, officials shut down all public transit in the area and began a door-to-door search, warning residents to stay inside their homes. Incidentally, this is the 238th anniversary of the day Paul Revere made his famous ride from Boston to Lexington warning residents that British troops were on the march.
In 1775, the surveillance consisted of a couple of guys in the bell tower of the Old North Church.
Today, that surveillance truly is everywhere. In fact, cameras and video recorders can be found in just about every pants pocket or purse. If there ever was an "expectation of privacy" for people as they proceed with the mundane activities of everyday life, that notion has long since been discarded.
For better or worse, we are being watched.
Of course, most people would prefer not to be watched. Even so, situations such as the one in Boston support the wisdom, in some cases, of sacrificing privacy in the interest of the common good.
Technology, once developed, is rarely discarded. The objective becomes how to use that technology in a way that serves humanity, even as we recognize the dangers that can come when that same technology is used for destructive purposes.
The best example of this comes from Alfred Nobel, who was so guilt-ridden over the abuse of his most famous invention -- dynamite -- that he established Nobel Prizes to honor the positive contributions in a variety of disciplines.
Dynamite, when used for the purposes in which Nobel intended, was extremely beneficial, especially in construction of roads, mining, etc. That it would also be used to maim and kill was something that haunted Nobel in his final years.
In our era, the Information Age, there continues to be a fierce debate about what kinds of information should be collected by our government.
While law enforcement conducted its investigation in Boston, lawmakers in Washington voted down a bill that would have implemented an expanded background check on firearm purchases. Those opposed, including Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, voted against the bill because they viewed it as an assault on Second Amendment rights.
How collecting that information is an assault on the Constitution is certainly open to debate.
But those who feel their rights are infringed by such an idea are generally convinced that the government has no right to collect such information on citizens.
It was the same argument that was made when surveillance cameras began to be put in public places.
In both cases, it seems less a matter of preserving privacy than a mistrust of government. Some are simply convinced that the government has harmful intentions in collecting that information.
There are limits, of course, to what the government should be able to do. For example, wire-tapping requires a warrant in most cases. It is a safeguard against abuse.
The same should apply to other information, including collecting information on gun sales.
As the Senate vote on expanded background checks for gun sales suggests, the tide of public opinion has not yet reached that point.
But it likely will.
It is simply a matter of time, we suspect.
1. Lynn Spruill: What they deserve LOCAL COLUMNS
2. Our View: In the heat of summer our thoughts turn to ... water DISPATCH EDITORIALS
3. Kathleen Parker: The coming Alzheimer's crisis in America NATIONAL COLUMNS