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.

A certain kind of surveillance is almost certainly going to be more common in the future -- the sort that we all participate in by walking around with smart phones that take GPS tagged, high resolution photos and videos. Between smart phones and private security cameras, it's increasingly hard to imagine any notable event happening in a big crowd without someone noticing.

Right now, it takes a major crime for all that visual data to be accessed. In other words, it is made available to authorities after a mass casualty attack, but is of no use to someone like, say, a busybody mayor who wants to monitor the size of soda cup held by the patrons exiting a particular bodega. I doubt that's the specific reason that Bloomberg wants more surveillance cameras. But I'm confident he's imagined all sorts of paternalistic ways to make use of NYC's surveillance cameras that have nothing to do with protecting Americans from future terrorist attacks.

Just wait until removing the cameras is unthinkable.

Meanwhile, many who write about all the cameras he's installed in NYC don't ask any hard questions. This MSNBC story is particularly amusing:

If you put your backpack down in lower Manhattan and walk away, a "smart" camera may just focus in on it. And if you don't retrieve it within a few minutes, a bomb squad might storm your knapsack. More and more "smart" surveillance cameras are being used to identify potential threats in New York City, according to Ray Kelly, the city's police commissioner. "You can put an algorithm in these cameras" that can spot potential threats like a discarded backpack or large package, Kelly explained.

When a bag was left outside the New York Stock Exchange, Kelly said it was "smart" cameras who alerted the NYPD. The police quickly deemed it a threat and sent out a bomb squad. That bag didn't contain a bomb, he said, but it's a prime example of how "smart" surveillance cameras work.

So that's a prime example? A false positive? The story never mentions an instance when cameras actually stopped a terrorist plot. Or how easy it would be to plant a bomb in a crowded subway car or department store instead of on the street, if the cameras really did get good enough to rush police to the scene of a bomb and diffuse it before it exploded, which is itself an unlikely scenario. Of course, this comes from the mayoral administration that defends years of racially profiling innocent Muslim Americans, at great costs to their community, even though the divisive, resource intensive work "never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation."

That isn't very pragmatic.

And Bloomberg isn't a pragmatist. He is ideologically committed to the proposition that increasing the power of authorities and impinging on once sacrosanct liberties is necessary to keep people safe, whether from terrorists or themselves. Of course he wants to watch us all more closely. We'd be fools to let him.

*The massacre at Columbine High School, the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the Newtown shooting, and the killing spree at Fort Hood: None of these horrific acts would've been prevented by increasing police surveillance in public places.