Mayor Bloomberg Is a Surveillance-State Extremist, Not a Pragmatic Centrist

He talks as if 9/11 and the Boston marathon bombing justify cameras everywhere. But they wouldn't have stopped either attack.
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Even when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg receives criticism, he is regarded as "a pragmatic, apolitical, solution-oriented centrist," as Joe Nocera once described him in The New York Times. But it isn't so.

The conventional wisdom is wrong. Although Bloomberg belongs to neither the conservative movement nor the progressive movement, he is an ideologue. His response to events is influenced by his paternalistic ideas about the direction society "needs to" head more than by a dispassionate response to the facts. This makes him a lot like most politicians. The conceit that he is a pragmatist is based in nothing more than the fact that he is more willing than most to transgress against norms of personal liberty.

The latest illustration of his ideological approach: his response to the Boston marathon bombing.

"Look, we live in a very dangerous world," he said. "We know there are people who want to take away our freedoms. New Yorkers probably know that as much if not more than anybody else after the terrible tragedy of 9/11."

He continued:

We have to understand that in the world going forward, we're going to have more cameras and that kind of stuff. That's good in some senses, but it's different than what we are used to. And the people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry, but we live in a complex world where you're going to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution I think have to change.

It is hardly surprising that an unapologetic paternalist who frequently shows disregard for civil liberties would favor creating a more expansive surveillance state than the one that presently exists.

But ponder the examples Bloomberg cites as if they justify his conclusion.

Security cameras wouldn't have prevented hijackers from flying airplanes into the World Trade Center. In Boston, there were already enough private security cameras in place to identify the bombing suspects, and more cameras couldn't have stopped two guys with backpacks from dropping them.

There's no reason to think more surveillance cameras or fewer Constitutional rights would've saved lives in either case*. Yet Bloomberg invokes 9/11 and Boston in support of that preexisting agenda, exploiting the terrorist attack to advance his purposes as blatantly as Dick Cheney.

I don't doubt that Bloomberg earnestly believes America would be better off with omnipresent  surveillance and fewer Constitutional protections, any more than I doubt that Dick Cheney really believed that invading and occupying Iraq was in the long-term interests of the United States. But neither is a rational response to the terrible attacks we actually suffered, even though both men improved the odds of getting their way by invoking the specter of terrorism. 

At least the political press understands that Cheney is an ideologue, even when those who share his agenda try to represent it as pragmatic. Despite it all, Bloomberg is still treated as a pragmatist.

That should end.

A solution-oriented pragmatist wouldn't respond to the Boston attack by telling people they need more security cameras and fewer rights. He or she would look at facts specific to the case, many of which are still being discovered, and suggest solutions grounded in what actually happened. Invoking a tragedy isn't off limits. If you want to argue that the FBI should pay more attention to tips it receives from foreign governments, of course you're going to cite Tamerlan Tsarnaev. What's unpersuasive is invoking Boston in service of a policy that wouldn't have stopped it.   

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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