My long-developing article on CCTV in the UK and the growing surveillance state there has at long last been published by The Washington Monthly. One of the great pleasures of visiting London in January was meeting so many interesting people and hearing so many thoughtful ideas about my subject, and one of the pains of producing a publishable article was that so much of what they had to say necessarily ended on the cutting room floor. It’s small consolation, but here are some extended quotes from the people who made my visit so memorable:
TIM O’TOOLE, the then-Director of the London Underground: “What we’re experiencing now is not some clash of civilizations, Christianity versus Islam, or a war with al quada. Yes it is a terrorist group, but it is a terrorist group like the Baader Meinhof gang. They’ll die out, no doubt in my mind, and after them, there will be somebody else. But what’s really going on is that we are living in an era when there is a massive transfer of power from institutions to individuals. Technology gives individuals access to information, access to communication, theability to form groups without the aid of institutions. And so you have Nick Leeson, who took down Barings Bank, one of the most successful banks in history, financed the wars against Napoleon, and it vanishes in a second because some individual was able to push some buttons. You have a situation where a blogger can have a bigger impact on an election than a major newspaper. You have a few guys with box cutters who turn a passenger jet into a cruise missile. It’s this ability of individuals to cause outcomes far beyond what any individual could have ever done before that has institutions so confused. Because change is coming so fast—meanwhile, we’re still holding governments responsible, and government officials take steps to demonstrate a feeling of control. And often they overreact. And so you have the Palmer raids, or Japanese internment, or McCarthyism. Every time there’s crisis, we swing wildly in reaction. It’s kind of what’s happening with Guantanemo now. So what should society do about this transfer of power? Well, we can’t handle it by suppressing liberty, because you never keep up, and every time we try. we become ashamed that we walked away from our principles. We need more liberty, to make it work for us, by welcoming all of the smart people of the world to our shores. We have to ride the wave as a society. If you try to suppress it, you’re doomed to failure. Because there’s too many ways to deliver a bomb.”
JOHANN HARI, columnist, The Independent: “ We’ve bought into a very conservative notion of liberty as being freedom from the state’s doing anything. But there’s more than one kind of liberty. There’s absolutely a threat from the state, but there’s another potential threat to liberty, and that’s from other individuals. The best way to maximize liberty is not for the state to do nothing, but to find the best mixture, so you can go about your business not being hampered by either the state or by individuals. I think we go off into a right wing ditch when we assume that you become freer if there’s no state action. Because that’s sometimes true, but sometimes not. Thanks to CCTV, those people who are now going to blown up by the Soho nail bomber are now more free. Prostitutes in Ipswich are now more free. Those people who would have made the attack are not at liberty to commit those crimes. That’s an important dimension of the debate—state action can—but doesn’t always—make you more free. Could a future government abuse the technology? That’s clearly true. But that’s an argument against having an oppressive government, not against the technology.”
DAVID COX, journalist, The Guardian: “What’s really striking nobody cares. If people have a choice between their security and anything else, they’ll choose their security. And this applies to all these ancient liberties that we’ve fought for for a thousand years. The government comes by and says let’s set aside another one of these rights, and see if anybody cares. Like habeous corpus. Let’s extend preventive detention from 28 days to 42, and the papers say terrific, can’t it be a little longer? Because that’s what these ancient liberties are really valued at.
“Young people don’t understand what you mean when you say privacy. They are constantly on their social network sites giving up every detail of their existence. They don’t understand why you’d want to cover something up. People before the IT generation, they saw themselves as different sorts of beings. Older people still think of themselves as having an inner life, a personality. Young people don’t really have a personality, there’s just all these things that they’re interested in, and there’s nothing to hide.
“But why do some people want privacy? The innocent have nothing to fear—that’s what the government always says, and on the face of it, there’s a lot ot that, because what are the CCTV cameras really going to show? I was with this woman the other day, and she was talking about some ruffians who were trying to look up her skirt. And I said, why do you care? What possible difference could it make to you? She said, it’s private. Something in common with that tribesman who doesn’t want his photograph taken because it steals his soul. The government just can’t see why somebody would object to a thing that’s going to make you safer and stop others from ripping off the social security system. And nobody can explain why, because it’s something deeply rooted and mystical. But its seems like it’s going to evaporate, because these young peopel don’t care about it.
“People like the idea of measures being taken to deal with danger. In Europe, we do have the idea that we want the state to take care of us. Basically, I have the theory that over the centuries, everybody who wanted to stand on his own two feet got up and went to America, and everybody else stayed behind—basically, the medeaval serfs who lived off the lord of the manor who told them what to do. And the government wants more power, because the officials know that if they missone thing and a terrorist slips in, they’ll be blamed. And so they can just never have enough power, enough control. And it’s our fault for having unrealistic expectations. My parents generation understood there was a lot of risk in life—accidents, fights, childbirth. People today have lost the concept of risk. They can’t distinguish between minimal risk and zero risk. And people have insatiable need for security, and the officials feel the pressure, and these things chase each other.”
GUY HERBERT, General Secretary, NO2 ID: “I, like everybody else, have what I call a private life. I do not consent to the government controlling every aspect of my being. I am entitled to call myself who or what I like—I don’t need the government determining that for me. I object to the entire inversion of our entire way of life, in which the state is supposed to be responsible to us, even under our archaic constitution. We do have popular sovereignty. This would turn everything on its head. The government would determine who we are.
“There is a presumption behind these measures that the expert state knows best, and that we should trust their judgment over other people’s judgments. And the idea that if you’ve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear is a difficult line to counter, unless you;’ve got the imagination to realize that what you’ve got to hide doesn’t depend on you, on your choice. Who knows what tomorrow brings?”
BRENDAN O’NEILL, editor, Spiked-online.com: “The blanket application bothers me. The technology transforms everyone into a suspect. A cop who applies human judgment, I have no problem. But what happens to the millions of cameras is that everyone becomes an object of suspicion, just by virtue of being filmed, just by being watched. Something happens that is very subtle and not very measurable. But it does have an impact on people’s lives, and on what it means to be a free citizen. If you have nothing to hde, you have nothing to fear. The enlightenment assumption about a citizen is that you are free citizen and should be left alone unless you have done something wrong, and then you should be investigated. Now the assumption is turned completely on its head. Now you have to perform your innocence—you have to perform your goodness. To demonstrate that you’re being a decent guy. That is the implication of always being watched. And of other new initiatives—national ID card, DNA database, new act called safeguarding vulnerable groups act that require background checks on people who work with children or the elderly. All of these require the citizen to prove that he is good, rather than for the state to prove that he is not. A real shift in the natural state of things—citizen has to prove his innocence on a daily basis. I don’t want the state to protect me. The state is not here for my defense.”
DIANE WEI LIANG, novelist, BBC commentator: “I was very surprised by all the cameras when I first moved to London, because I felt they were infringing on my privacy. But the cameras had been there for a long time, and the British were quite OK with it, and I got used to it after awhile—it was a substitute for a police man at every corner. Still, every time I went around the corner and saw I camera, I felt uneasy. I thouight it was similar to the system we have in China that is supposed to support order, where every retired old lady is a pair of eyes, and every street committee can go into every house, and report everything you say and do. And it does provide a kind of safety. If there’s someone on the street who doesn’t belong, they spot that person right away. These are difficult times, in which we trust our politicians less and less, even as they get more and more power. We do have the example of the communist staes, where there was so much control. You had great stability, but you compromise on freedom. But that’s not where anybody wants to be.”
MENNO MEYJES, film director and screenwriter: “This diminution of our liberty is all our fault. It’s got nothing to do with the state. The state is just another organism out there, wanting to succeed wanting to prevail. You can’t blame a policeman for wanting to be a better policeman, a bureaucrat for wanting to be a better bureaucrat. And really, it’s difficult not to see the sense of creating a national data base. Of course it’s a good idea—I understand the efficiency. I’m not one of those people who thinks that the state is by definition evil. Poor Hannah Arendt was always trying to make that clear. But it’s our job to resist the state and its encroachments. People don’t seem to realize that they are voluntarily abdicating their civil liberties. Seriously, do you think that if we win the war on terror, all of this will be rolled back? We are abdicating our rights as citizens. It’s hard to say why. Probably fear. And laziness. And I say we, because being Dutch, I feel the English and the Dutch are a matrix of civil liberties. Nobody is sitting there saying I want to shoot my fellow citizen or throw him in a stockade. That’s now how it works. No, it’s bit by bit, you go down the slippery slope. And we’re such infants. Up to this summer, we didn’t want the government anywhere near financial services. Now we want to nationalize anything. Come on, people, get a grip!”
MINA AL-ORAIBI, British-Iraqi journalist and BBC commentator, Asharq Alawsat: “Britain has amazing liberties that make it a remarkable place to live, and I think sometimes I appreciate it more than people who have lived here all their lives, because I know that these liberties are something that can very easily be taken away from you. I want the government to do everything that it feels it needs to do in order to protect me, but I want the government to be able to explain why it thinks these things will work, and I don’t think this government always can. And that’s a problem, because in the end, it’s the institutions, it’s the laws that will protect you, and not any particular government that’s in place.
“In Iraq, we’re having such a problem explaining what human rights actually mean, that it’s not just sending 20 officials off to London tor Washington to get training for two weeks and that’s it. No, human rights is the principle that every single person has the right to hold the government accountable. And that’s why institution-building is so important, and that’s why all the abuses in Iraq are so disappointing, because you’re creating the impression that such things are accepted.
“It’s sad, because in the last few years, people in the UK have thought we’re under threat, and so we have to put up with new limitations on our freedom. And that’s just not true. And that’s giving the terrorista what they want, because you’re changing what the UK stands for. And that’s why there needs to be a greater effort to protect those liberties, and be guardians of what we have.
“People forget how liberal London is—you can be anything, and you’ll find a crowd. Big Brother is overhyped—most people have no problems. But things happen–the Terrorism Act of 2001 says you can be stopped on the street and questioned, and it happened to me. Quite a few of my friends from the Middle East have been stopped, and none of my white friends have been. There were three of us, two friends from a television channel in Iran, and we weren’t paying attention, and I gather we had chosen to stand in front of a very sensitive building near Embankment with just the river behind us, and within three minutes, we were surrounded. There were twelve vans. I almost went into fits of giggles. The police handed us this ridiculously long sheet of paper explaining why they stopped us and what our rights were. My friend explained that she worked for an Iranian television station based in Tehran, and they did a serious check—they called my office, checked my wallet, asked me questions. I was calm, I didn’t feel threatened. But I never heard of a single blonde friend being questioned. It took about a half an hour, and I got to thinking, if I wasn’t a journalist, if I wasn’t confident of being able to call someone for help, if I had said something—I’m not a bad-tempered person, but what if I had had a few words?—this could have become ugly very quickly. And that stupid paper—I have 12 cops around me, I’m not really reading the paper. But they had the right to stop and search—but this is the UK, not Iraq, where you feel lucky if they’ve only stopped you.”