The Herald Bulletin

April 30, 2013

Primus Mootry: Balancing safety, basic rights a problem in post-9/11 America

By Primus Mootry
For The Herald Bulletin

— It has been nearly two years since Lauren Spierer, a 20-year-old Indiana University sophomore, disappeared without a trace. At the time, in one of these articles, I remember expressing my hopes that she would be found alive and well. As an aside, I also commented on the fact that many of her movements had been captured on surveillance cameras in the early morning hours of her disappearance.

At the time, a Bloomington rabbi said, “I think it’s really sad that those cameras aren’t already here. We would have had an answer already, and we would know where Lauren is right now if we had those cameras.” The rabbi was lamenting the fact that the city of Bloomington did not, like many other American cities, have surveillance cameras everywhere. But sometimes, Rabbi, you have to be careful what you pray for.

There is a tension between the need for government-sponsored surveillance in the interest of public safety and individual, Constitutionally guaranteed, right to privacy. To the point, you may recall that, a couple of years ago, Portland, Oregon’s Water Bureau drained 8 million gallons of water from a reservoir after a surveillance camera caught a drunken man urinating in it late one night.

It cost Portland over $70,000 to drain the water, dispose of it, and clean the reservoir. The embarrassed offender pleaded guilty and offered to pay the damages, except he had no money. Water experts said the drainage was unnecessary because such a minute amount of contamination posed no public health threat. Nonetheless, city officials defended their action because, well, people just don’t like the idea of drinking — you know.

I heard of another case, in Texas I think, where a man went into an alley to relieve himself and was caught on camera. Before he could finish, several squad cars were on the scene and he was carted off to jail for such an unlawful, unpatriotic act. I can’t remember whether they let him finish. But this is serious stuff.

The latter two cases I mentioned are somewhat frivolous, even laughable. But think of the role public and private surveillance cameras played in the killing of one of the Boston Marathon bombers and the capture of the other.

A CNN report noted, “Behind the scenes, federal investigators began to sort through what has become the norm in post-9/11 society. Thousands upon thousands of surveillance photos and videos taken from cameras at traffic lights, storefronts, parking garages, and other places along the marathon route.”

Without such surveillance, it is doubtful the two brothers allegedly (a formality, I think) responsible for the bombings would have been caught before they had a chance to commit another such heinous act. In fact, it is believed that New York’s Times Square might have been their next target. If guilty, by all means, spare no cost. Catch them. In either federal or military court, try and convict them. Bring them to justice.

But the tension between security and liberty is still with us. It cost taxpayers over $500,000 for city and state police, FBI, ATF, and other forces to capture the two terrorist suspects in Boston. Nationally, since 9/11, we have spent trillions on “homeland security.” Still, I suspect most Americans feel no safer today than they did on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the meantime, the U.S. Congress and both presidents Bush and Obama have kept in place the USA PATRIOT Act. The letters stand for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

The Act was signed into law less than a month after 9/11 and, guess what, few (if any) legislators even read it.

The short of it is this. Under certain very fuzzy conditions, The PATRIOT Act allows the U.S. government to, among other things, subpoena the Internet or other businesses for your name, address, phone call records, library book checkouts, your telephone number, bank accounts, and other information. And that’s just a tiny piece of it. Many civil liberties groups have called it flat out unconstitutional.

Bottomline, are we, for the sake of security, sacrificing freedom of speech, the right to privacy, protection from illegal search and seizure, and the right to due process (including habeas corpus)? Is this the new normal for “the land of the free, and the home of the brave?” Will we ever feel safe again?

Have a nice day.

Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.