Tim Carney on the Real Lessons of Boston

Tim Carney points out that the Boston bomber was caught thanks to private citizens voluntarily cooperating with law enforcement, thus disproving the argument made by to many in DC that this case shows the need to increase government surveillance. Tim points out that a system that forces law enforcement to rely on the cooperation of private citizens is an important, if overlooked, check on government:

"Give the government eyes on every street corner, and you mostly aid the ability of law enforcement to track us without public cooperation, warrants or legal paperwork. In other words, the British system not only gives government more information about the people, it gives the people less control of their government.

Sure it slows down our law enforcement when we require them to obtain cooperation, but so much of our legal system is exactly that: impediments to law enforcement intended to protect individual liberty and prevent abuse of power.

The standard retort to complaints of government surveillance is, "If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't mind being watched." This mindset is wrong in many ways.

First, it's important to remember that governments and law enforcement agencies often abuse their power. Think of the Jim Crow South. Think of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer using state police (including a helicopter) to track political rival Joe Bruno.

But more importantly, the "what are you hiding?" question should be thrown at the government instead. Why would you want to avoid asking the public or a business for video, or asking a judge for a warrant, unless you were seeking information for improper purposes?

Finally, government surveillance at every corner reflects the un-American idea that we ought to leave civil order to the police. At times Americans have abdicated our responsibilities as citizens. But in crises we rise up.

When terrorist attacks in the U.S. have actually been deterred, it's been because of citizens acting. The shoe bomber was beaten by other passengers. The Times Square bomber was noticed by a vendor. And Flight 93 was brought down by hero passengers.

To stay safe we don't need fewer civil liberties. We need more civil society."


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