Below is my column today in USA Today on the Boston bombing and the call for new security laws and expanded surveillance. I have been doing interviews trying to caution against these calls for immediate action — a mantra that we hear after every attack no matter the cause. I am in Chicago today and was struck by how quickly Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel called for more surveillance cameras in a city with one of the largest surveillance systems in the United States.
For civil libertarians, all terrorist attacks come in two equally predictable parts.
First, there is the terrorist attack itself — a sad reality of our modern life. Second, comes the inevitable explosion of politicians calling for new security measures and surveillance. We brace ourselves for this secondary blow, which generally comes before we even fully know what occurred in an attack or how it was allowed to occur.
Politicians need to be seen as actively protecting public safety and the easiest way is to add surveillance, reduce privacy and expand the security state. What they are not willing to discuss is the impossibility of detecting and deterring all attacks. The suggestion is that more security measures translate to more public safety. The fact is that even the most repressive nations with the most abusive security services, places such as China and Iran, have not been able to stop terrorist acts.
While police were still combing through the wreckage from the Boston Marathon, politicians ran to cameras to pledge more security measures and surveillance. Indeed, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel demanded more cameras in response to the Boston attack. Chicago already is one of the most surveilled cities in the United States. Emanuel’s solution: add some more. It is a perfectly Pavlovian response of politicians eager to appear as champions of public safety.
We need to resist the calls for a greater security state and put this attack into perspective. These two brothers built homemade bombs with over-the-counter pressure cookers. They placed the devices in one of the most surveilled areas of Boston with an abundance of police and cameras. There is only so much that a free nation can do to avoid such an attack. Two men walked in a crowd and put two bags down on the ground shortly before detonation.
No one is seriously questioning the value of having increased surveillance and police at major events. That was already the case with the Boston Marathon. However, privacy is dying in the United States by a thousand papercuts from countless new laws and surveillance systems. Before we plunge ahead in creating a fishbowl society of surveillance, we might want to ask whether such new measures or devices will actually make us safer or just make us appear safer.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.