False dilemma

The grenade attack on the US Embassy gave that necessary extra push. It now seems likely that CCTV cameras, the legacy of the Athens Olympics, will be green-lighted to monitor people’s movements in the city. Proponents of the idea promise that individual rights will remain intact. But if past is prologue, such reassurances mean little. Even if the premier has good intentions, the not-so-transparent mechanisms that will process all that vast material will be tempted to use it for other ends. And in any case, people don’t like being watched – this affects their behavior. Our private sphere should not end on our doorstep. Until now, big cities ensured a good degree of anonymity – a factor of individual freedom. CCTV cameras cannot protect us from ordinary crime. Sure, they can help police investigate armed robberies and terrorist acts and, in that sense, they contribute to security. On the other hand, they clearly impinge on individual rights. Approaching the issue on the basis of a security or rights dilemma is wrong, theoretically and politically speaking. Democracies cannot simply choose one of these two fundamental goods. The question is to strike a balance between the two. People’s understanding of the golden rule varies. It’s a question of ideology. Choice must be made in a democratic way, bearing in mind that the answer will not be an objective one. The dilemma is wrong also on a political level. September 11 demonstrated that ordinary people set security as a top priority. The state has the power to cultivate fear and hence guide public mood. In practice that means that if the dilemma is raised, rights are destined to lose out. But CCTV cameras must not be entirely ruled out. In fact, they might as well be used in soccer stadiums. But there is no threat to justify their use in the streets. The «theology of security» could soon be a nightmare.