Becoming a surveillance state

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2010

Last month, the Sitka Assembly voted to install two new security cameras as part of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The Alaska Marine Highway System requested permission from the state Legislature to accept similar funds from Homeland Security for a closed circuit monitoring system aboard the ferry Aurora. Like the rest of the country, Alaska continues to be seduced into becoming a surveillance state.

In 2006, Dillingham became a national news story when the remote community installed 80 cameras. Juneau too has its own sorry participation in this state of extreme paranoia. According to a 2007 investigative report by the Boston Globe, such grants have cost taxpayers more than $100 million.

To be fair, less than five percent of the half-million dollar Homeland Security grant to Sitka is for security cameras. The rest is for upgrading the city's emergency warning system, including a new program that will automatically dial calls to all local residents in the event of an approaching tsunami.

However, there are odd similarities here. A terrorist attack is as unlikely as a tsunami and the additional security measures for both might well be ignored if big brother wasn't footing the bill.

That's not to say that Sitka isn't susceptible to the devastating effects of a tsunami. Early warning systems should be part of the city's emergency preparedness plan. In fact, it could be easily argued that a deadly tsunami is more likely to occur there than a terrorist attack.

But these days we are besieged by calls for increased security from all walks of life. We've got Homeland Security to go with the National Security Agency supposedly protecting us from external threats. Then there's the Social Security Administration protecting Americans against the loss of income due to retirement or disability. And the Securities and Exchange Commission which so recently failed in its mission to protect investors.

Maybe we need to reexamine our security needs. How necessary to our safety and well-being are these agencies? What guarantees do they offer? Who is it we trust to ensure our future?

This last question is ripe for picking apart the federal bureaucracy. Whether one is a civil libertarian, social or antiwar activist, or today's tea party crowd, there is a steady stream of mistrust flowing in the direction of certain agencies in our government.

On the other hand, true trust can only be awarded to people in our lives with whom we have personal relationships. It's not a matter of mistrusting politicians or the civil service employees who staff their administration. Rather we have no basis for understanding how these people will behave. Even though we expect them to act in the best interest of the public they serve, we can only assume they are sincere in the execution of their duty.

Only blind trust would allow us to feel secure because our police departments are monitoring the local scene with a sufficient number of surveillance cameras. But if we're really fearful of terrorists living amongst us, there will never be enough manpower to monitor all the cameras needed to prevent every possibility of an attack.

It's more likely the majority of the population is indifferent to the threats here in Alaska. The trauma that struck on Sept. 11, 2001, wasn't deep enough for those who live far away from ground zero, and enough time has passed to ease whatever anxiety was brought on by the sense of doom inflicted that day.

The same is true of the tsunami threat in Sitka. While it may be a distinct possibility, it's never happened before. The occurrence of catastrophic events like the one unleashed after last month's Chilean earthquake are far too rare for people to worry about. Otherwise, the citizens of Sitka would either move away or demand their own local government develop a comprehensive warning system instead of waiting for a grant from Homeland Security. In essence, we have to trust our own judgment about the nature of hazards that come with living. That's the only measure of real security we can ever expect. Homeland Security isn't providing it with color coded threat levels or by encouraging communities around the country to install surveillance cameras. The real insecurity belongs to Homeland Security, for if they can't evoke fear in the American people, then they'll soon be out of business.

• Rich Moniak lives in Juneau.

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