The Boston attacks largely confirmed what we already knew about surveillance cameras. They don’t stop attacks – not in Boston, and not even in London or Times Square, which are blanketed with cameras. They can, however, be helpful in investigations, as they were in Boston. No one objects to cameras at high-profile targets or events; at the same time, we at the American Civil Liberties Union think there needs to be a balance. Government surveillance of everyone’s activities anywhere in public without proper checks and balances could fundamentally alter the way we live our everyday lives.
When Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were first identified as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing we knew very little about them, except that they were brothers, immigrants and Muslim. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD reacted to the threat of future terrorism with a years-long program of un-American profiling, casting a wide net of suspicion over innocent American Muslims throughout the northeastern United States. Based on a false and unscientific “radicalization” theory, the NYPD spied on entire communities in their places of worship, small businesses, and student- and community-based organizations, based solely on their religious beliefs, race, or national origin. A NYPD official later testified that information collected through the NYPD’s program did not produce any leads for terrorism investigations. Instead, predictably, the NYPD’s actions wrongly stigmatized law-abiding Muslims, caused them to deeply distrust the police force instead of seeing it as a source of protection, and wasted law enforcement resources.
Throughout American history, in times of fear, fundamental civil liberties are often restricted in the name of security. Later, those curbs on our freedoms are regretted, but reversing them may take years and may ultimately affect our notions of what constitutes freedom and fairness in the first place.
Let’s not lose sight of the lessons we’ve learned about trading our liberties for a false sense of security in light of the tragedy that occurred in Boston. We must not overreact by engaging in profiling that undermines American values or creating a surveillance society that will strip us of privacy without doing anything to prevent or deter terrorism.
Anthony Romero is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. The views expressed are solely his own.