Surveillance

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

|


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.