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From the Rector: Who keeps watch on the government watchdogs?

Fr HawtinAn Englishman’s home, it seems, is no longer his castle. Apparently, Britons can now be prosecuted for politically incorrect thoughts expressed in the privacy of their living rooms.News of this will make visiting the land of my birth a decidedly uncomfortable experience. It’s not that I habitually utter politically incorrect ideas, but I would very much like to be able to …. if I felt so inclined.

Besides that, a decade spent reporting on the communist regimes of Eastern Europe has given me an aboding aversion to being spied on by government snoops. It was impossible to avoid the snoops. The necessities of daily living were invariably in short supply, but the things one could always rely upon finding were the omnipresent eyes and ears of the secret police.

Nor did the surveillance by the secret police end when we crossed the threshold of our homes and hotel rooms. Mostly the telephones were bugged rather than the light fittings. Thus the phones were used not only to record our calls but to listen to the conversations taking place in the rooms.

In response, we used to pile pillows over the phones the moment we stepped through the door . . . unless, of course, we felt like playing mind games with the snoops—an amusing pastime, though not without its dangers.

In Moscow, it frequently took several hours to get a phone call through to Britain or America. The phone service, you see, had to locate a suitable English-speaking KGB snoop to monitor the call. This was more than a little irritating, but not without its funny side.

Shortly before we married, I placed a call to Charlotte from my hotel room in Moscow. It took four hours to get through, and when we were finally connected she told me, much to my surprise, she had found a new apartment for us in London at a very reasonable rent.

The only drawback, Charlotte explained, was she had to buy some decidedly peculiar furniture that went with the apartment, viz. “two mushroom tables, a huge Danish purple seating stand, etc., etc.

Our snoop on the line clearly detected the amazement in my voice. For upon hearing the fact that we had acquired a table made out of a front door, she broke into the call. “Zat iss enuff!,” she shrieked, and promptly disconnected us. I howled with laughter.

She obviously imagined that my new CIA control was passing on to me coded instructions that posed a real and present danger to the Soviet state. Those mushroom tables, seating stand and front door-table must have kept a whole team of KGB code breakers busy for a month. The downside was that I couldn’t get another phone call through to the outside world for the rest of my stay.

The point of the story is that the unthinkable is happening here in the West. Our governments have acquired systems for snooping on us that would make the communist secret police green with envy.

Even before the new Orwellian measure, Britons were already being constantly monitored by an estimated four and a half million centrally-linked closed circuit TV cameras—one camera for every 15 citizens.

A million cameras are deployed in London, while the rest are distributed throughout the country—even in remote country districts where, fox hunting aside, crime is largely an event that happens elsewhere.

What is the purpose of all this surveillance? It doesn’t do much to solve crime.

Even the London Metropolitan Police statisticians admit only one crime has been solved for every 1,000 cameras deployed—and that at a cost of a whopping $35,000 per crime.

Nor do they seem to deter crime. One crime victim reported that the closed circuit camera overlooking his backyard neither deterred the criminal who invaded his property and viciously assaulted him, nor did it secure a conviction though the assault was recorded on tape.

So what purpose do these cameras serve? First, they raise vast amounts of revenue, automatically recording the slightest traffic infraction—the accidental crossing of a yellow line, for example—for which the authorities levy hefty fines.

Second, they scrutinize people’s behavior—how they act, what they do and with whom they associate. They are used to monitor public meetings, demonstrations, smaller protests and even spontaneous gatherings. And they routinely eves drop on the intimate affairs of the unsuspecting.

Don’t believe government snooping can’t happen here. It already has. Washington is covered with security cameras. Baltimore, too, has its share, together with aerial surveillance.

Assurances that the cameras are merely being used to deter terrorists criminals, aggressive drivers, speedsters and folks who run red lights is by no means reassuring. If experience in Britain is anything to go by, this is simply the camel’s nose under the tent.

Many Britons seem to have persuaded themselves that constant surveillance makes them more secure. But as Benjamin Franklin astutely observed: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”

The problem was defined by the Romans more than two millennia ago. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” they asked: Loosely translated, it means: “Who keeps watch on the government watchdogs?” Who, indeed? GPH✠

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