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October 18, 2007

Sad, true, and depressing

Brian Micklethwait talks about the advantages to criminals in the modern surveillance panopticon that is modern-day Britain:

The ubiquity of surveillance cameras in Britain does not appear to be having any very detectable effect upon the level of crime.

Well, actually, that is not quite right. Total surveillance does dissuade the law-abiding from straying across the line. Surveillance cameras do slow up speeding motorists, for instance. But with one exception. They do far less to slow up motorists who are already criminals. These persons have little further to fear from the criminal-processing system than the complications they already have to live with as a result of already being criminals. In the unlikely event that they are traced, driving a car that isn't theirs or that they have not reported to the various authorities that the rest of us must keep informed about everything, they are processed slowly and clumsily by the criminal-processing system. It is noted yet again that they are criminals, which everyone already knows, and that, pretty much, mostly, is it. Any punishments they suffer are as likely to be badges of honour as they are to be truly feared.

[. . .]

The most spectacular and often newsworthy instances of this contrast between the law-abiding and the criminals occur when the law-abiding fight back against criminals when they are attacked by them. When this happens, and in those cases when both parties are scooped up by the police, perhaps because the law-abider summoned the police and the police actually turned up, the criminals often come off better, because they then know how to handle things. The criminal lies about having aggressed, and in due course walks away. The law-abider tells the truth about how he defended himself, and can land in a world of trouble.

The effect of total surveillance, then, when combined with the rest of the criminal-processing system, is not to abolish criminality, but rather to ensure that we all have to decide, as one big decision for each of us: Am I going to be a criminal, or not? If I am, that's one set of rules, criminal rules, which I must obey. If I am going to be law-abiding, then I must obey the law, whatever that exactly is. (And at all times, now that all infractions can be photographed and recorded for ever, everywhere. If that is not the case now, it soon will be.) But, because the law is so very intrusive and annoying and so full of complexities and arbitrarinesses and injustices, that creates a constant pressure on people to say: To hell with it, I'm going to be a criminal. Meaning: someone who doesn't care who else knows he's a criminal, and who can accordingly relax about being totally surveilled.

Posted by Nicholas at October 18, 2007 01:04 PM

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