Conflicted as they are, the American public should side with Senator Paul. Many things stand between us and tyranny, but that is not good reason to drop our guard, nor, crucially, to undermine the best bulwark against over-zealous government that the world has ever seen: our Constitution. As a farmer would be a fool to presume that the good year’s harvest augurs perpetual success, so a citizenry would be unwise to place the tools of abuse in the hands of the state simply because it is currently benign. This, if anything, is the Constitution’s role, and it applies as keenly to the “just” leader as to the baleful.
The refrain of the surveillance society, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?” presumes a perfect government — from the top right down to those operating the cameras, who will have their own temptations for abuse — and a set of perfect laws. This is not always, if ever, the case. The question, thus, is whether in exchange for catching a few more criminals and making the border a little more secure, Americans wish to erect a giant, warrantless surveillance web that pulls all law-abiding citizens into its hold. If the proposition was a network of camera-wielding private detectives, I suspect Americans would refuse the trade-off. So they should with drones.
Were each of Britain’s 1.85 million CCTV cameras held by a human being with a face, attitudes toward them might well change. This raises an interesting question: Does the fact that machines are physically divorced from those who monitor and operate them imply to many that they are less intrusive?