There were some striking ­similarities between the carnage in Boston at the finish line of the marathon a few weeks ago and the bombing of the World Trade Center 20 years ago. Both were acts of terrorism. Both, tragically, led to deaths (three in Boston, six in New York) — and to far more injuries (264 in Boston, more than a thousand in New York). Both exposed anew how vulnerable we are to terrorist acts. And both raised issues of preventing terrorist acts while still preserving as much personal privacy as is possible.
I recently had occasion to revisit my own reaction to the latter issue while preparing a book which is about to be published entitled Friend of the Court: On The Front Lines With the First Amendment. One of the articles I wrote that I chose to include in the book was one I had written shortly after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Entitled (not by me but by the editors of The New York Times magazine where it appeared) "Big Brother’s Here and — Alas — We Embrace Him," the article was a lot less definitive than the title sounds. It took no firm position at all but was sort of an elegy to privacy, an ambivalent overview of the topic.
I began the article by recollecting the scene in the splendid 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate, in which Laurence Harvey, playing a brainwashed American turned assassin, dressed as a priest and walked into Madison Square Garden carrying a rifle in his attaché case. What was jarring, I wrote, was that no one — not a soul — stopped him to inspect the case. "How far," I observed, "we have come." I acknowledged in the article that ­vastly increased security precautions were inevitable. Speaking of the extraordinary level of security precautions the year before at the Democratic National Con­vention in New York, I wrote, "Hardly anyone complains about such security precautions. Who would? How can we compare in the same breath the risk of assassination to the comparatively infinitesimal irritation of being searched? How can we compare the possibility of an airplane hijacking or the placement of yet another terrorist bomb akin to that placed on Pan Am 103 to the time spent and privacy intruded upon that result from being screened at airports?"
At the same time, I maintained that it was useful to pause and acknowledge the magnitude of what we had already lost of our personal privacy. I wrote, "Intrusions upon our privacy cannot be viewed separately — a search here, a television camera there. They must be viewed cumulatively. In all aspects of our lives, people we do not know are touching us, searching us, looking at us. The countless screening devices that surround us in order to protect us may be necessary, but they impose a heavy cost. We pay dearly for all of this."
Well, I still believe all of that but it’s not as if I reached much of a conclusion about the subject in 1993. If anything, we have a far worse, far more dangerous, security situation now, in a post-Sept. 11 world. We also have a far worse privacy situation — in part, of course, because people on social media often act as if there is no such thing as personal privacy about themselves, in part because of the growth (I could say explosion) of viewing and listening devices around us.
You should not be surprised that a recent article on Bloomberg.com reveals that there are at least 233 private and public cameras that film people within a 40-city-block area in Boston. And that more than 300 cameras record the movement of people in London. It may also come as no surprise that a recent Time/CNN/ORC poll concluded that 81 percent of the American public favor greater surveillance by cameras of streets and other public places.
Is the public wrong? Are we too ­easily yielding our personal privacy? With the horrors of the Boston Marathon fresh in our minds, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that street cameras, concealed or not, serve as a more than useful protective tool. Yet it remains important to continue to bear in mind the dangers. We may be far from the Orwellian 1984 image of Winston Smith, understanding that "you had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." Now, as in 1993, we do not live in that world. But as we move down the road to ever more intrusive technology surrounding us, filming us, looking at us, we should bear in mind that it is not always tolerable to be always on camera.
Floyd Abrams, a senior partner in Cahill Gordon & Reindel, is the author of Friend of the Court: On the Front Lines with the First Amendment (Yale University Press June 4).