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Viewing TV can be scary but revealing

Charlotte developed a writing journalist’s prejudice against television soon after leaving college, and I gave up watching during time spent writing about the Soviet Bloc. After all, the human mind can tolerate only so many documentaries about coal mining in the Dnieper region and the wonder of food processing in Kazakhstan.

But it is difficult to spend 12 or 14 hours a day with your nose in a book, especially when you are taking heavy–duty painkillers that tend to impair concentration. As a consequence of Charlotte’s long period of recovery from the painful operation to repair her broken leg, we have viewed more television during the past couple of months than we have watched over the past 30 years.

Our re–acquaintanceship with the medium has been highly enlightening. For starters, we have learned that our attention spans are far too long for the major TV networks. The startling frequency of the commercial breaks is irritating beyond measure.

We are no prudes, but the diet of sex and violence offered by any of the movie channels is not much to our taste. “Chick flicks”—predictably enough I suppose—occasionally capture Charlotte’s interest, but they appeal to me about as much as Soviet–era coal mining documentaries.

As a consequence, we gravitate to the Public Television stations that devote much of their air time to British offerings—such as Keeping Up Appearances, Downton Abbey, the estimable Dr. Who and “police procedurals,” including Inspector Lewis and Prime Suspect.

The police procedurals have been particularly educational—albeit in ways I doubt the British broadcasters intended. Not least, they demonstrate, graphically, how swiftly the utterly unacceptable can become the entirely unremarkable norm.

Back in the days of Nazi Germany and “Evil Empire,” for example, the activities of secret police agencies, such as the Gestapo, the KGB, or the East German “Stasis,” was rightly regarded with the deepest repugnance. Indeed, George Orwell’s iconic novel, 1984, expressed the universal horror felt by people in what was once known as “The Free World” at the governments that employed secret police thugs to control their populations by means of all-encompassing surveillance and mind control operations.

Today, however, the governments of the once Free World have at their disposal population control technology the Gestapo and the KGB had not even dreamed of possessing. What’s more, British television, unwittingly perhaps, demonstrates that our governments’ democratic inhibitions against deploying it against their citizens are fragile at best.

In the Britain of yesteryear, a fundamental maxim was “a man’s home is his castle.” It was a principle that extended beyond the front yard—not just to main street, but to the borders of the nation itself. Not any more.

Today Britain’s population is perpetually under the surveillance of some 15 million closed circuit television cameras. It is estimated that the average Brit appears on TV about eight minutes each hour.

TV crime shows such as Inspector Lewis and Prime Suspect demonstrate that the ubiquitous cameras have become as standard a tool in the police armory as fingerprints and DNA testing. Indeed, it is fair to assume the first thing the police do when investigating a crime is review the closed circuit TV recordings.

I am not claiming the British cops, or the government that lays down the rules they follow, are using this surveillance technology with baleful intent … yet. But the temptation is there, and the trouble with temptation is human beings, by their fallen natures, are predisposed to succumb to it.

While these surveillance cameras certainly pose a palpable threat to liberty, they scarcely offer much in the way of security. They enabled the British police to identify within eight hours or so the young Islamic terrorists who attacked the London subway a few years back.

But they did nothing to prevent the crime. And despite the constant surveillance, the cameras resulted in a surprisingly modest number of prosecutions in the wake of the widespread riots in Britain earlier this year.

Nor would the surveillance cameras prevent horrifying crimes such as the mass murder and maiming that took place in Aurora, Colorado, recently. They would simply provide supplementary—and in all probability superfluous—evidence for the prosecution of the perpetrator.

However, while the cameras have proved singularly ineffective at preventing crime, they provide police with the capability of monitoring the daily activities of the entire population should those in power deem it to be necessary. Not least, they could provide the authorities—thanks to “face recognition technology”—with information about everything from where people do business to the folks with whom they associate.

This situation has not come suddenly into being. Two world wars and the prolonged fight against terrorists from Northern Ireland have created a situation in which this sort of government snooping has become, if not unobjectionable, at least tolerable.

The British do not have a written constitution, nor have they ever had the sort of untrammeled rights to free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In fact the rights of the individual Briton tend to be those that Parliament and the judiciary deem appropriate—a very different thing from the fundamental freedoms we take for granted.

This is not to say Britain is no longer a democracy or that it is in immediate danger of becoming a police state. Far from it. It is still a vigorous democracy. But the machinery is there for it to become a police state in short order should the wrong people gain political power.

It is, thus, worrisome that the same sort of technology deployed in Britain is increasingly in use in the United States—not just in Washington, D.C. where terrorism is an ever–present threat, but in other cities, including Baltimore. Traffic cameras and crime prevention cameras in inner cities are the camel’s nose under the tent.

It is why the defense of the “original intent” of the framers of our Constitution should be a matter of vital importance to people of all shades of political opinion. The potential for tyranny is be found in both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum. And, as Benjamin Franklin so presciently observed: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety will soon lack both.” GPH✠

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