I have no idea what was going on this morning in my neighbourhood this morning, but police had and entire street blocked off and at least a dozen men that looked like a military unit, but were probably a S.W.A.T. team, in helmets and combat fatigue were present. There was, perhaps, a serious situation brewing on that street, but I found their presence more scary than reassuring. It reminded me of a trip to Prague my wife and I took a few years ago. Prague is a lovely city and I would highly recommend it as a travel destination. Immediately after checking in to our hotel, we went over the the Old Town Square, which is a delightful place just to hang out. It is vibrant with people, picturesque with a beautiful centuries old astronomical clock, lined with cafes and restaurants and chock full of vendors of food and wonderful Czech beer. That night there was a large group of Polish soccer fans, in Prague for a big game, shouting and waving Polish flags. Not speaking a word of Polish (or Czech for that matter), I had no idea what they were chanting and perhaps it was obscene or over the line, but my impression was that they weren't particularly rowdy. Nonetheless there was a police response to the soccer fans that consisted of helmeted police officers with clubs and shields forming a perimeter around them and helicopters with search lights overhead. It certainly seemed like overreaction to us and served as a scary reminder that the Czech Republic had been, not so long ago, a communist bloc police state (we quickly returned to our hotel).
Observing a similar scene in my own neighbourhood this morning (even though there may be a perfectly legitimate reason for it) was chilling and reminded me of how little the country I live in resembles the country I grew up in. While there is long way to go between the United States in 2013 and Czechoslovakia circa 1968, slowly and inexorably the United States is becoming a surveillance state and police state. Cameras are everywhere keeping an eye on us, although most notably now at intersections and speed traps. Police forces are increasingly relying on paramilitary S.W.A.T. teams and becoming increasingly well armed. There is even talk about police forces using unmanned drones. Courts have ruled that police can place a tracking device on your car (even while it is sitting in your driveway) without a warrant and I have discussed the increased federal surveillance in a previous post.
What has changed? Has the United States become a more dangerous place since I was kid? No, not really. Despite all the furor over gun control sparked by the recent school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, homicides by gun were the same or less in 2004 than in the 1970's, 1980's or 1990's, and therefore lower per capita. Jihadist terrorism is nothing new as employees of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, Marines in Beirut in 1983, relatives of passengers on PanAm Flight 103 in 1988, or anyone who remembers Jim McKay's report from the 1972 Munich games can attest. The challenges to an undeveloped nation developing a nuclear weapon remain steep and the dangers posed by radiological dirty bombs remain overestimated. What has changed is technology and fear. In the 1970's and 1980's we didn't have speed cameras, unmanned drones, or high tech scanners at airports and GPS devices weren't ubiquitous. Nor did we voluntarily relinquish privacy by carrying GPS trackers in our pockets (smart phones) and putting every increasing amounts of data about ourselves into the public domain through blogs like this one or on social media sites. However, we accept this ever increasing surveillance because, despite the fact that threats have not changed and the vast majority of us live full lives in relative safety, we have become more afraid. 9-11 has generated so much persistent fear for two reasons. The first its simple audacity. Khalid Sheik Mohammed is often described as the, "mastermind," of the attack, but this is gross overstatement. It didn't take a genius to send 19 hijackers to the U.S. on student or work visas and have them hijack four planes armed with box cutters. It wasn't brilliant, but it was tragically effective and seeing such death and destruction caused by such simple actions and planning is indeed scary. Secondly, 9-11 represented a paradigm shift. Previously, hijackings were more about taking hostages than using the plane itself as a weapon. While this paradigm shift does require some alteration in how we respond to terrorism, our reaction to it which has included increasingly invasive airport searches and multiple foreign wars, some of which had nothing to do with the attackers, represents gross overreaction to what was, is, and always will be, a low frequency event. Similarly the disturbing headlines about a school shooting may motivate us to action, but the fact of the matter remains that the vast majority of gun homicides are not mass shootings.
And so fear, largely irrational, has fueled the transformation of the United States into a country increasingly hard to recognize compared to the country of my youth. But, what if the greater threat to life and liberty is not external but internal? What if the greater threat is the surveillance we've agreed to place ourselves under? What if the greater threat is the greater concentration of power, power that can be abused, in the hands of fewer and fewer people who are those that are supposed to keep us safe? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?