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Are we willing to pay the price of catastrophe to keep our privacy?

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  U.K. terror incident timeline

Friday, June 29:

?1:25 a.m. Friday: Ambulance called to Tiger Tiger nightclub in central London to treat a patron. Crew spots smoke coming from a green Mercedes and alerts police.
?Shortly before 2 a.m.: Police bomb squad arrives and discovers the car is packed with gasoline, nails, gas cylinders and a detonator. Squad defuses the explosives.
?About 2:30 a.m.: Blue Mercedes parked illegally between Haymarket and Trafalgar Square, is ticketed, then towed to impound lot about a mile away.
?Midmorning: Police close street to investigate blue Mercedes after attendants at impound lot report smelling gasoline.
?9 p.m.: Police say blue Mercedes contains similar explosives materials as green Mercedes.

Saturday, June 30:

?Noon: Prime Minister Gordon Brown meets with top intelligence officials, police and senior government officials.
?3:15 p.m.: Two men ram a flaming Jeep Cherokee into the main entrance at Glasgow’s international airport, crashing into glass doors before being arrested. One suspect taken to the hospital.
?Saturday evening: Brown convenes another emergency meeting.
?8:15 p.m.: Britain raises security alert level to critical — the highest possible level indicating terror attacks are imminent.

Sunday, July 1:

?Sunday morning: British police announce the arrest of two people in northern England in connection with an attempted car bombing in London and an incident at Glasgow airport.
?Sunday afternoon: 26-year-old man detained in Liverpool.
Source: The Associated Press

Jack Jacobs
Military analyst

Some of the alleged conspirators involved in last week’s thwarted car bombings in London and the attack on the Glasgow airport have been apprehended, and the reason is television.

True, it was merely good luck that the plot was uncovered in the first place. One perpetrator in London haplessly called attention to himself by clumsily crashing into parked cars and then abandoning his bomb-laden Mercedes. And at least one of the bombs was inexpertly constructed and would not explode as intended, providing London with another bit of good fortune. The Glasgow attackers failed as well. Had the plots succeeded, hundreds of innocent people would have been killed, burned and maimed, but fate intervened and a terrible tragedy was averted.

But the most important aspect of the whole episode is that British officials immediately knew the identities of several of the conspirators, and England’s security cameras is why.

There is hardly a street in London that is not fitted with a camera that is part of a closed-circuit security system, and other major British cities are similarly equipped. Some of the devices are linked to radar detectors that routinely nail speeders and motorists who drive through red lights. Others are only for general surveillance and security. But the most significant output of the system is forensic evidence that can be retrieved and used by British law enforcement and intelligence organizations.

We have nothing like that in the United States, and we are unlikely to have it any time soon. Americans love privacy, and we are evidently willing to pay the price of potential catastrophe to keep it. Any politician with the courage to suggest that we develop an extensive system of surveillance is likely to be flayed alive by most of his colleagues, by the majority of American commentators in the media and by every organization that claims to protect American civil liberty. We don’t seem to mind if anybody has our personal information, and we deliver it to good people and bad every day over the Internet, but we don’t want government surveillance, even if it means that we may be safer.

Part of our problem is that, even after the attacks of 9/11 when more Americans were killed than on Pearl Harbor Day, we still feel that we are safe, far too safe to justify measures that are the least bit intrusive. In theory, we are at war, but only one half of one percent of Americans is serving in our armed forces. Terrorists are half a world away, aren’t they? Unemployment is down. The stock market is up. Why worry?

Well, the terrorism in London, Glasgow and other cities in Europe and elsewhere, including here at home, should motivate us to be more concerned about our safety than we are. The only lasting national response to the 9/11 attacks has been the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, a bureaucracy of no significant utility. Indeed, one could argue persuasively that our response has been counter-productive because it has contributed to a sense of dangerous complacency and an aversion to genuinely effective security measures.

Slide show
A British policeman checks the permit pa
Probing British terror
British police continue their “fast-moving investigation” into the failed car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow.
We have all seen what happens when government is given the ability to intrude, and it is the stuff of which despotism is made. We Americans have fought too long to preserve freedom to relinquish any of it now. But it is difficult to see how government surveillance of public areas places the government in the business of reprehensible intrusion, and even when it had a much more liberal bent than it does today, the Supreme Court said that we should have no expectation to privacy in a public place.

There will always be a healthy dynamic tension between freedom and safety, but we would be well advised to recognize that the ultimate loss of freedom is the death of innocents.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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