By Selwyn Duke

New York City officials have announced that “it’s only a matter of time” before parks throughout the Big Apple are equipped with surveillance cameras. Washington, D.C., police are now going to monitor live footage from some of their cameras (those in the highest-crime areas), joining other American localities that embrace the practice.

This isn’t unusual in the Western world. London is notorious for its “Ring of Steel,” a citywide network of 500,000 peering eyes. No wonder “1984” was set in England.

When hearing one opposes such measures, some will ask, “Why? Do you have something to hide?”

Well, yes, I do.

Ayn Rand long ago observed:

“The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

I might now add: One then makes the surveillance commensurate with the degree of criminality so one can catch and punish all 300 million of the nation’s lawbreakers.

Thus, we all have something to hide, from a nanny state bent on controlling us from cradle to grave with its more than 250,000 laws. As to this, NYC has an anti-flirting ordinance that prohibits looking “at a woman in that way,” and in East Windsor, Conn., a woman was charged with “ridicule on account of race.”

So here’s one reason I oppose cameras: The only thing worse than a government that enacts stupid, excessive laws is one with the means to enforce them.

Even if you take no exception to our current legal regime, I’d suggest being mindful of precedents. Surveillance cameras are vehicles through which government can effect control; thus, today’s technology of justice is tomorrow’s tool of totalitarianism. Do we so trust government that we would cede such control over our lives to it? Once the machinery of Big Brother is in place, the only remaining prerequisite for tyranny is the fuel (the will) to animate it.

Then there is the power of conditioning. Once measures such as cameras are institutionalized and accepted, they won’t be questioned any more than Social Security numbers or bridge tolls (which were meant to be temporary). Some people will gripe about the many new, onerous laws enforced with the tools in the same way they complain about toll increases; yet the majority won’t question the existence of the cameras themselves any more than that of toll plazas and E-ZPass.

Unfortunately, lacking the Founding Fathers’ healthy fear of government, inured to intrusiveness and ever willing to sacrifice liberty for security, people today sometimes offer broad support to camera schemes. Crime is scary, after all, and surveillance seems like a logical tool for thwarting it. But there is another way.

Years ago I used to run a sports program for youth, and I was known as quite the disciplinarian. While I certainly did appear draconian relative to the extreme permissiveness of the posh suburb in which I labored, there was method to my madness. I had administerial duties to perform and couldn’t observe most of the happenings among dozens of participants dispersed throughout a fairly expansive facility. And the children knew it.

This sounds like Dennis-the-Menace heaven, right?

Yes, except for one thing. I punished transgressors harshly enough to ensure that, despite the low probability of being caught, no one would dare violate the rules.

These were children, not hardened criminals (well, except maybe for a few), but universally applicable principles apply here. To deter bad behavior, you must ensure that the risk/reward factor militates against committing the act – that crime truly won’t pay. To accomplish this, one begins with the understanding that risk is determined by a combination of two factors:

  • The actual punishment administered.
  • The probability that a transgressor will be apprehended, prosecuted and convicted.

This means that as punishment becomes less severe, the apprehension rate must increase to maintain a given deterrent. And one reason we don’t thwart crime as effectively as we could is that we forget the second factor when assessing risk; we only take the punishment into consideration. This creates an economic calculus that favors the criminal.

For instance, it’s said that theft entails only a .6 percent chance of being caught and convicted; therefore, a thief has to commit an average of about 167 crimes before he will be incarcerated. Now, since the average sentence for theft is only about two months, this means a thief may serve an average of less than nine hours per robbery.

Is it any wonder our streets aren’t safe? If your stock-in-trade is stealing, crime certainly does pay.

Thus, if we insist on reducing punishment to a slap on the wrist, our only hope of deterring crime and providing people the security they crave lies with catching most every perpetrator.

Ergo, surveillance cameras.

Remember this the next time someone emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment or waxes compassionate about criminals, for he is doing nothing less than proposing a model that will ultimately subordinate the rights and freedoms of the lawful to those of the lawless.

If politicians really are bent on installing cameras, however, I will agree with placing them in the highest-crime areas first. Let’s start with the halls of government.


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Selwyn Duke is a columnist who is featured in The New American magazine and is a regular guest on the Michael Savage show.

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