Surveillance

The Times Square Car Bomb Plot: Thumbs Up For Jane Jacobs, Thumbs Down for Dick Cheney

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Fred Kaplan at Slate with two apt observations on the Times Square car bomb investigation:

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, self-taught urban scholar and activist Jane Jacobs observed that sidewalks and their users are "active participants in the drama of civilization versus barbarism" (by "barbarism," she meant crime) and that a continuously busy sidewalk is a safe sidewalk, because those who have business there—"the natural proprietors of the street"—provide "eyes upon the street."

Jacobs, who died in 2006, would not have been surprised to learn that it was two street vendors who first notified police of the suspicious Nissan Pathfinder…

This may explain why busy areas like Times Square aren't attacked by terrorists more often. The crowds make them tempting targets: lots of people mean lots of potential victims and subsequent media attention. But those same crowds—especially the regulars, who are always looking out on the street—make an attack harder to conceal and, therefore, to pull off.

And:

the event further discredits the Dick Cheney-Newt Gingrich view of terrorism—that it's "an act of war" and that, therefore, fighting it as if it were a "criminal act" is foolhardy.

We don't yet know whether Saturday night's car bomb was the work of a one-off loner or a terrorist organization. But, in one sense, that's the point: Regardless of who tried to bomb Times Square, the New York City police (and, presumably, much more behind the scenes, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies) would be doing exactly the same thing that they're doing in response—scouring the forensic clues, scrutinizing video footage, questioning witnesses and the usual sources, double-checking electronic intercepts, and all the rest.

Terrorism, in some of its forms, may be a campaign of war—but it manifests itself in criminal acts. And while the military has a role in combating terrorist organizations (see the war in Afghanistan, the drone attacks on al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, etc.), the acts are often best pre-empted, foiled, and punished by the routine procedures of a well-trained police force and intelligence organizations.

Kaplan also thinks that the event will cement in all Americans the notion that constant public surveillance cameras are, however privacy-reducing, important and necessary. While I don't agree about the tradeoff, he may well be correct.

Reason on Jane Jacobs over the years.

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  1. Total Amateur hour dude. PLain and simple.

    Lou
    http://www.whos-logging.se.tc

  2. “”But those same crowds?especially the regulars, who are always looking out on the street?make an attack harder to conceal and, therefore, to pull off.””

    The only thing that prevent people from being killed was the incompetency of the bomb maker. If the bomb would have detonated, there would have been no warning

  3. “We don’t yet know whether Saturday night’s car bomb was the work of a one-off loner or a terrorist organization.”

    Given that the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility, that the bomber just got back from a several month’s stay in Pakistan and that at least five people have been rounded up in Pakistan for questioning it’s highly unlikely he acted alone.

    But if thinking so makes you fell better, go ahead.

    1. Kaplan’s piece was from yesterday; it did not reflect today’s news.

      1. Then why reference it?

        1. Because it made interesting and apt points that, as the piece itself rightly states if anyone read what I quoted, stand regardless of whether it was a one-man plot of a foreign one. If you disagree with that, that might make an interesting discussion.

          1. But I think Vic’s post above does make an interesting statement that merits discussion. If it werent for the fact that the bomb was poorly constructed and started smoking without detonating, thereby giving it away, I don’t think any of the shopkeepers would have noticed anything particularly suspicious about a parked SUV in Times Square.

            1. True, but from what we have seen, the people they manage to recruit in this country are pretty damn bad at actually executing terrorist plots. So odds are pretty good that their will be some sort of warning that people on the street might notice.

              1. That doesn’t vindicate here thesis though, if the thesis ipso facto requires the attempts to be failures to start.

                I don’t even have to be a regular patron or resident of a street to notice that a car that is billowing smoke without anyone in it or around it that appears concerned for the fact that their car is smoking is indication that there is something fishy.

                1. But you must be on the street.

                  If its empty, no one will notice the smoke.

                  1. Terrorists aren’t in the business of blowing things up just for show, so of course they’re going to do it in a busy area.

                    The thesis was predicated on the fact that a mistake will be made, that there is no such thing as a perfect crime. While it may not be easy and those that do get caught seem like idiots, don’t underestimate their ability to learn.

                    If they remain unapprehended, they’ll eventually learn from their mistakes to make the next one not smoke. The only ones that don’t learn from their mistakes are those that make a big enough mistake to get caught (trying to get the deposit on the truck they rented) or suicide bombers:) Which is sort of like natural selection for terrorists. It only kills off the dumb ones.

          2. Sudden has it wrapped up. In fact, the article has two major thrusts:

            1. It is hard to attack big public places because this event proves that a vigilant populous will stop it.

            2. Dick Cheney is an asshat because he thinks that terrorism is an act of war and really this proves that it is just a criminal matter.

            Well, Sudden just showed you why thrust number 1. is stupid. If the bomb had not failed, the “vigilant crowd” would be vigilantly blown up right now. Their vigilance did nothing to prevent tragedy. Nor did their vigilance lead to apprehension – that was surveillance tapes.

            Thrust 2 is even more tenuous, as it insists that catching the trigger-man on the bombing is proof that law enforcement technique is adequate to address terrorism. Well, that’s all well and good as long as you have no interest in engaging the terrorist organization behind the act. If you are content to file extradition papers on the off chance you are able to trace back a name, well great. But if you want to engage them in Afghanistan, you have to go to Afghanistan and remove their sponsoring government from power as a necessary first step to apprehending the “criminals”. How in the world that is different from prosecuting a war, I don’t know.

            1. In all fairness, I was piggybacking on TrickyVic’s point regarding #1.

              As for the second part, even by recognizing it as an “act of war” which I think is clearly the case here considering this is merely one attempted occurance of a larger number of occurances all rooted in the same alleged greivance on the part of radical Islam, I don’t think that necessarily makes the case for response in kind with war-making power, and especially with regard to the kind of war-making we’re presently engaged in. Personally, I felt from the moment 9/11 happened that we should have issued a declaration of war on the organization that perpetrated it (al-Queda) much like we did against the Barbary Pirates in the early days of the Republic, but I don’t think it gives us cause or justification for the nation building monstrosity we have committed ourselves to now.

              1. So, respond with a declaration of war, and then proceed to act only at a time and place of our choosing, and only in ways that are advantageous to us. But, that sounds …. prudent… Even smart… Nah, that’ll never fly.

                I think we’ll keep going with half-assed authorizations to use force that we can deny are declarations of war when convenient. And we’ll vote for them, before we vote against them. And we’ll be sure to hold someone accountable when the shit hits the fan. Only not really, just in speeches. Yeah, that sounds more like our thing.

            2. How would engaging them in Afghanistan have done anything? The guy that tried to blow up Times Square was living in America. His associates were apparently in Pakistan.

          3. We don’t yet know whether Saturday night’s car bomb was the work of a one-off loner or a terrorist organization. But, in one sense, that’s the point: Regardless of who tried to bomb Times Square, the New York City police (and, presumably, much more behind the scenes, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies) would be doing exactly the same thing that they’re doing in response?scouring the forensic clues, scrutinizing video footage, questioning witnesses and the usual sources, double-checking electronic intercepts, and all the rest.

            FIFY

    2. I know thinking so makes me feel better. I am much more worried about what our government might do in response than I am about anything terrorists might do.

      1. That is a sentiment I fully agree with, despite my excoriation of the article’s thesis down-thread.

      2. like no more cash sales on vehicles thru the internets

        1. It’s the gun show loophole on wheels!

  4. “”But those same crowds?especially the regulars, who are always looking out on the street?make an attack harder to conceal and, therefore, to pull off.””

  5. From newspaper accounts it was a bomb that a child would make who knew nothing about bombs. Firecrackers and wire and some potting soil, with a little clock.

    1. Newspapers are experts on bomb-making of course, and can thus provide their own unique insight without relying on official sources.

  6. I’m still interested in hearing the REASON the suspect attempted this. Was he upset over Obamacare (bloomberg)? Was he under pressure and heartache from his house forclosure? What bizarre ideology did he follow. And I don’t want to read any racist commments in reply blaming it on Islam. We all know that Islam forbids such acts.

  7. the event further discredits the Dick Cheney-Newt Gingrich view of terrorism?that it’s “an act of war” and that, therefore, fighting it as if it were a “criminal act” is foolhardy.

    I doubt that this will convince John.

    1. What I don’t understand is how the two (act of war, criminal act) are somehow mutually exclusive notions?

      If the motivations for the attempted bombing are political in nature, and intended to address our political involvement overseas, how is that not an “act of war”? It might have been carried out using more simplistic criminal means, but that does not exclude it from being part of a larger- dare I say- conspiracy to wage a broader struggle.

      1. That is the point the article made though:

        Terrorism, in some of its forms, may be a campaign of war?but it manifests itself in criminal acts. And while the military has a role in combating terrorist organizations (see the war in Afghanistan, the drone attacks on al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, etc.), the acts are often best pre-empted, foiled, and punished by the routine procedures of a well-trained police force and intelligence organizations.

        1. And I don’t think any of that is markedly different from anything Cheney has advocated. The edge cases are mostly about “combatants” who didn’t commit any crime under US law. That’s actually a tough case. I mean, if they swear allegiance to an organization dedicated to killing americans, but they don’t actually do any killing of US citizens, what do you do with them? I guess you could trump up some bullshit conspiracy charge – but that would be really tough to prove in a US court when they live in Pakistan and have never been to the US.

          I guess on the “routine procedures” front we would mostly have a pretty big disagreement with Cheney, but they did do their non-routine stuff in a very officious and routine way. The torture memos are a prime example of that. The area where they strayed the farthest the did so in amazingly tiny ways, with huge amounts of red tape and procedures to protect the “suspect”. They even banned slamming them against the wall and yelling… they had to build a fake breakaway wall that would ensure that they were not physically harmed. Really bizarre the lengths they went to to avoid stepping over a line. Particularly noting that the entire idea was over the line before they even got started. I would imagine that when the issue has come up in the past, it was handled in a completely opaque manner and never revealed.

          They certainly expanded their ‘routine procedures’ far beyond what I’d accept (patriot act, wiretapping, phone records) – but they did so in a decidedly routine way. They passed new laws and regulations and issued official requests. No CIA operatives breaking into AT&T computers to get phone records, just a nice letter from a lawyer requesting records. Really a strange time we live in.

    2. Didn’t convince me either.

      1. What pisses me off so much is how so many of my fellow anti-war/anti-bombing the fuck out of other countries are letting their sentiments on the war issue obscure a fairly obvious observation: that instances like this are acts of war in a very real sense.

        Recognizing it as an act of war doesn’t necessarily proscribe that the most effective or wise response is to go around the world rebuilding nation-states out of predator-drone created rubbble. But to deny that multiple attempts to detonate homemade bombs in an effort to kill/maim civilian populations and scare the bejezus out of people all motivated by a central organizing political-religious principle is somehow anything other than an act of war is on its face absurd.

        1. So if the group were a close-knit, shall we say “family” of people who followed the dictates of a hierarchy of leaders that culminated in a top-level “chief of the chiefs,” and if these dictates led to numerous and frequent criminal acts, with the objects to 1) profit; and 2) cow the populace into submission, would we call this group a terrorist organization, and would we declare war on it? Or would we call it an organized crime syndicate and treat its activities as matters for the police?

          1. all motivated by a central organizing political-religious principle

            I don’t think you can overstate the importance of distinction in motives and motivating principles. Comparing the Italian mob to al-Queda is a disingenious false dichotomy.

            1. And just where is the line? The Columbian FARC clearly began as a communist guerrilla on the model of Cuba, Congo or ‘Nam, then turned to kidnappings and drugs when they saw their military campaign ended in a tactical draw.

  8. So if this guy pulled off the bomb and killed a few hundred people (not impossible on a busy day in times square) and then we found out that he was trained and instructed by a group of Islamic terrorists from the borderlands in the Af-Pak theater, would Cheney be right then?

    1. How so? But one question first: do you agree that what actually happens is more of a reflection of the threat we do or don’t face, or that what you can imagine happening in your worst nightmares has more to do with it? (That is, policable and completely incompetent failures, or worst case scenarios?) And how exactly would the waging of war have prevented what didn’t happen from, um, not happening?

      1. We were not “at war” on 9/11 with Islamic terrorists.

        We are now.

        Clearly it’s not a conventional battle with regular forces fighting each other. Instead it’s become an ideological battle between one faction who doesn’t believe in nation states or sovereignty and another who does. Without a doubt it’s incredibly complicated and tangled. But to deny that we are “at war” with this failed ideology doesn’t change the fact that they are at war with us.

        1. “There is a bear in the woods. . . . “

          1. Excellent analogy. Distinct from the merits of any actions taken by our government, there is definitely a political advantage to using the terrorist boogie-man to get anything you want out pushed through the legislature. And “we the people” definitely like to have an enemy. In fact, action/adventure movies have mostly sucked since the “bear in the woods” days when a Russian accent was all you needed for a good bad guy. They keep wanting “industrialist polluter” to replace “soviet operative”, but that’s just about as lame as you could imagine.

            1. I was afraid no one would get it. Kudos to you.

              1. Congratulations to us. We’re old….

      2. How so? Perform this thought experiment: instead of an Islamic terrorist organization, suppose the events of the last decade were sponsored by an established country. Pick one that fits your internal dialog – China if that floats your boat, or Libya if it fits your narrative better. Now, if Khadaffi had continued his anti-west terror beyond the Lockerbie bombing and had successfully downed the world trade center, should we pursue that as an ordinary FBI criminal investigation? If the actions are taken by a state, doesn’t that make them acts of war, kinda by definition?

        Replacing “Libya” with “Al Quaeda” certainly makes finding a target to bomb more difficult, but they aren’t exactly at the same level as battling David Koresh’s followers either.

        1. suppose the events of the last decade were sponsored by an established country

          They were…Afghanistan. Removing the Taliban government from power was justified. Nation building is not.

          1. Justified or not, the real question is “is nation-building feasible?” I think the answer that we have painfully re-learned is “no”.

            1. Sure its feasible, under very unique circumstances…like Japan.

              1. Or Germany. Or South Korea.

                1. I think the differentiator here is “rebuilding” vs “building”.

                  1. Wait so what makes it “rebuilding” as opposed to “building”.

              2. Destroy a modern country and they will return to a modern state with or without help.

                Destroy a shithole 3rd world country and it stays a shithole 3rd world country with or without help.

                1. What ‘kinnath’ said.

    2. Lets also not forget that the nazis sent 8 people to the United States to sabotage our industry and all 8 were arrested. And we all know that the nazi problem could have been solved better if we had just treated it as a criminal problem. Right?

      1. But lets remember those 8 nazis were denied their rights under the US constitution (they were captured on US soil) and were tried convicted by an illegal military tribunal and executed by military firing squad.

        I know for a fact this was illegal because over 60 years later the evil Bushitler regime attempted to do the same thing to the peaceful muslims captured over in brown skin countries we were stealing the oil from.

      2. they were probably spotted by sidewalkers, and I’m sure that none of them were ever interrogated by anyone connected with the military. Seriously though, the NYPD is is no position to trace a pakistani sabateur back to his masters. And neither is the FBI. The only reason the sidewalkers saw smoke instead of a loud bang and then nothing is that the bombmaker was incompetent.

        1. If terrorism is the act of sowing fear among a civilian population in hopes of achieving a desired result then the incompetent muslim bombmaker was pretty successful wouldn’t you agree? I mean we are debating the pros and cons of expanding public surveillance now.

      3. In terms of actually finding and dealing with them, yes, police/intelligence work is the correct way to deal with Al Qaeda or Nazi spies — the problem is finding them without harming your own citizens, actually eliminating them once your find them doesn’t usually require much firepower.

        While it it’s arguable that a terrorist attack that had a clear, non-governmental target could and should be dealt with as a criminal matter, for those that are “acts of war”, wartime sabotage/espionage is the relevant context to consider foreign-linked infiltrators, whether working for Al Qaeda or the Third Reich. For domestic terrorists, insurrection/rebellion is the correct context.

  9. But those same crowds?especially the regulars, who are always looking out on the street?make an attack harder to conceal and, therefore, to pull off.

    Although I agree that such acts should be subject to a normal criminal investigation, I have to disagree with this particular statement.

    In large crowds, it is hard to pay attention to what everyone is doing. One is normally so busy with making one’s own way through the crowd that it is difficult to pay attention to any particular individual or their actions. Further, because the crowds are larger and more diverse, the individual members exhibit a wider range of behaviors, so “abnormal” behaviors stand out less.

    As a point for my argument, may I remind you of the numerous suicide bombings in crowded markets in the middle east.

  10. I disagree that this is an indictment of Cheney. In fact, the writer’s own comments explain the “act of war” context. It is not the methods used to investigate the crime scene that define “act of war”, it is the actions taken in response.

    If this is the act of a lone nutcase (unibomber) or of a small group of nutcases (McVeigh) then arrest and incarceration are the appropriate responses. But what if they are the actions of a larger political entity – a nation-state? What if Argentina were behind these attacks? Would we content ourselves to merely arrest their operatives whenever we catch them violating the law? Or would we take our complaints directly to the Argentine government, with a sizable amount of force to back those complaints up?

    Well, with 9-11 we have a large political entity engaged in violent attacks directed at the US government. They lack a state, but they are also different from a group of nutcases. They have designs on establishing a large nation-state centered on the Arab peninsula, but they don’t actually control the territory (yet).

    The “Act of War” status and argument centers around how to attack that non-nation-state entity. Simple law enforcement regimes are unable to touch the international arms of the organization, because there are governments that are less sympathetic to our cause and because the lines of evidence would be very difficult to sustain in court for an extradition hearing if you could in fact make the direct “he ordered Abdul to blow up the building” connection.

    Under the “war” paradigm, the leadership of the Al Quaeda and Taliban movements have publicly declared war on the United States, and have publicly claimed credit for violent acts carried out in prosecuting that war.

    It is pretty silly to say “we caught a single guy who might have been the one who planted a single bomb that didn’t go off” therefore “we can clearly treat the conflict with Al Quaeda as a law enforcement activity”. Look, there might be a legitimate argument for not bothering with chasing these assholes down all around the world until we can prove that a specific crime was committed by a specific person under rules of evidence in a court of law. But the facts as presented here are not that case. Not even close.

    1. Amen. The idea that we should foreclose any use of national security apparatus just because the bomber (1) had U.S. citizenship, or (2) wasn’t very good at making bombs is silly. At the very least, the circumstances suggest that this is an international conspiracy. There’s nothing wrong with investigating the possibility. If it turns out this guy acted alone, then fine, treat him as a criminal. But I don’t know how the NYPD alone could possibly establish that this guy acted alone.

  11. “The Dick Cheney-Newt Gingrich view” is a view regarding the adjudication of terrorist cases, not the apprehension of terrorist suspects. But Slate’s readership isn’t thinky, so they’ll eat that shit up. Good troll.

    trained and instructed by a group of Islamic terrorists from the borderlands

    A rural militia? McVeigh!

  12. Isn’t the second part of the article above a straw dog? Did Dick Cheney ever say that all terorrism is an “act of war” and treating it as a criminal matter is foolhardy?

    It’s more accurate to say that Cheney may have agreed on an expanded role for the military (one that Kaplan sees as necessary), but it’s not like the administration that created DHS abandoned the law enforcement approach.

  13. Does anyone else find it serendititous that this bombing attempt in New York preceded the Iranian President’s visit to New York by about 48 hours? Would not MamaDidaJohn have a great bit more to gloat about at the UN?

    1. serendipitous

      1. Don’t you mean “seditious”?

  14. I don’t completely buy the ‘busy streets’ observation, at least in relation to terrorism.

    I do buy it when we’re talking about normal domestic street crime and petty theft. But I think there’s plenty of evidence that “eyes on the street” doesn’t necessarily deter terrorism. Otherwise, every news story of a bomb going off wouldn’t contain the words “In a crowded market” or “in a busy restaraunt” or “popular night club”.

  15. The worst part? I have a very liberal friend who is disappointed that it wasn’t some fringe right winger. He has been, like most of the left, trying to convict the RW in public opinion, and quick to conflate RW militia violence, as if there actually has been any, with Tea and other conservative movements.

    1. I’m only disappointed that it (thus far) it appears it wasn’t a member of the Revolution 7th Day Adventists or Lutherans.

    2. Your very liberal friend is Rachel Maddow?

  16. “Vigilance” didn’t stop this fucking bomb. The bomber’s lack of ability to make an effective bomb stopped this bomb.
    And two, if the bomber was getting aid, money and strategy from a group aligned with a foreign government, then it may not be an “act of war,” but it certainly deserves a response.
    Doherty? Logic fail. Thread fail. All around FAIL.

    1. It is not clear that his support was “aligned with a foreign government”. The Pakistanis are arresting them. He appears to be a member of an international group but not a sovereign government.

      But Doherty is playing with fire in his praise for the venders and “vigilance” preventing this bombing. If vigilance is so important, then why not put cameras everywhere?


      1. If vigilance is so important, then why not put cameras everywhere?

        Private v Government vigilance.

  17. “Kaplan also thinks that the event will cement in all Americans the notion that constant public surveillance cameras are, however privacy-reducing, important and necessary.”

    If street venders noticed it, how is it a case for surveillance cameras? the Cameras might help to catch the guy afterwords, but they do nothing to prevent the attack. What are you going to do, shut down the city every time someone parks an SUV in Times Square?

    1. “What are you going to do, shut down the city every time someone parks an SUV in Times Square?”

      Well that’s the problem right there. Why do we allow people to own SUV’s at all? They are bad for the environment AND a security risk. Ban all large vehicles. That’ll solve the problem!

      Ok, ouch. I think I sprained my snark.

      1. You’d be surprised how much fertilizer we can pack into the new Chevy Volt.

        1. AND… the Volt can supply more than enough current to detonate the explosives!

          Plus… we’ll throw in the six-speaker CD/radio option at no charge!

      2. Damn. Had me going for a moment there.

  18. Nice discussion, guys.

    The paradigm case of a crime would be someone engaging in violence for personal gain or just for the hell of it. Most car/suicide/public bombings aren’t that.

    The paradigm case of war is armed conflict between nation-states. This bombing and most AQ operations doesn’t look to be that, although a fair amount of the Islamist terrorism right now could probably be accurately described as proxy warfare by Iran.

    Terrorism falls somewhere between the two. Which may be why it is a category of its own. Trying to stuff it into either box is a mistake. I do wish people would stop making this mistake.

    1. I agree that campaigns of violence against the general population to achive political gain fall between “crime” and “war”. However, if we have to make a mistake and stuff terrorism into one of those two terms, I prefer that it not be “war”.

      When the criminal organization Al-Queda received aid and comfort from the nation-state called Afgahnistan, we were fully justified in overthrowing the government of Afghanistan.

      But if there isn’t a nation-state to wage war on, then we must treat these violent organizations as criminals. Otherwise, we get a sideways version of 1984 where we are perpetually at war which justifies all sorts of abuses of our civil rights. We will lose everything that makes us free if we continue to wage “war” against shadowy groups that fill the cracks of 3rd world nation-states.

      1. I’m not disagreeing, kinnath, but I would point out that “campaigns of violence against the general population to achive political gain” is a pretty fair definition of “war”, especially if the campaign is waged by or on behalf of a nation-state.

        For example, I happen to believe that Iran is at war with us right now, because of its ongoing material support for people killing US troops. Iran is fighting a proxy war against the US using “terrorists” or “insurgents” or whatever we are calling war criminals these days.

        Take away the state sponsor, and these guys are doing the same things. I’m not sure it stops being a war just because the sponsor isn’t a state.

        I’m also not thrilled about defining war down to include anything less than armed conflict between states.

        1. If the US can put together credible evidence (perhaps requiring secret clearance to view) that Iran is acting through proxies to attack us, then we should be making plans to lay waste to the place.

          If we don’t have that evidence, we should be working through Interpol or some new cooperative international agency to build criminal cases against the terrorists.

  19. This may explain why busy areas like Times Square aren’t attacked by terrorists more often.

    That’s only true if it’s not a suicide bombing.

  20. Funny that Kaplan is vigilant against perceived tyranny of the “Cheney-Gingrich” variety, but seems perfectly content with tyranny of the Jane Jacobs variety.

  21. Jane Jacobs’ general thesis, that central planning of land markets and “smart growth” are good for us, is still wrong.

  22. From what I heard the cameras played no part in catching the guy, only on throwing people off by focusing on the innocent shirt changer. They tracked the former owner through the VIN then tracked the guy who bought the car from her through an e-mail reply to a Craigslist ad. A call for more VINs and more Craigslist, not more cameras.

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