Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Seeing is not doing

The most astonishing thing about Wesley Autrey's act of heroism -- jumping onto the tracks to save a stranger from an oncoming subway train -- is that it happened at all. How often is the right man in the right place at the right time? The second most astonishing thing is that we have not seen it. With all the spycams and cellphones, you'd think someone would have video. Evidently nobody goes to a comedy club or a hanging without a camera phone these days; where are the lookie-loos when something good happens, something that doesn't make you feel suicidal about belonging to the human species?

In the past -- a couple of years ago -- tourists lugged clumsy videocameras around New York. You could see them getting ready to film their families in front of Tiffany or the Rockefeller Center tree and discreetly walk around. Now the cameras are smaller and more ubiquitous, and urban people have learned to conduct themselves at all times as if they were being filmed, because they probably are. (Even the language has not caught up; we say "filmed" or "taped" although we are most likely being stored in a chip.) Most of us have happily surrendered all pretense to privacy in a delusional quest for safety which, we are told, is the sole purpose of all this surveillance. Americans boarding buses or entering museums calmly submit to the kinds of searches which used to be required only of visitors to maximum security prisons, or the White House, which amounts to the same thing. Judges have supinely signed off on these activities, as if the Fourth Amendment were to be more honored i' the breach than in the observance.

It is said that there are cameras which can look through our clothes, and presumably our flesh; one day you may get a letter from Homeland Security advising you to have that osteoarthritis in your knees treated. Had they been operating at, say, Logan Airport on the morning of September 11, 2001, they would have caught several neatly-dressed young men boarding flights to California, and detected objects in their pockets which might have been boxcutters, or toothbrushes. Could the cameras have looked into their minds and read their intentions? Government agencies are paying huge sums for technology said to be able to count the number of times we blink, or measure the dilations of our pupils, but then what? Another innocent person hauled out of line and renditioned off to Syria for a few months of torture in a rat-filled dungeon, another merry mix-up without so much as an apology from the Bush regime?

I like technology, I have a TV and a clock radio and everything, but there is no substitute for judgment and hard work. It's important that the FBI eventually get a computer network that works, but it's more important that the CIA share vital information with them, and that people in White House offices put down the shoe catalogue and pick up the memo, especially if Bin Laden's name is in the title. If people want to harm us, ultimately only people can save us -- thousands of people as brave, selfless, quick-thinking and resourceful as Wesley Autrey. Good luck finding them.


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