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The Lives of Others

What surveillance footage will never tell us

John Moore/Getty

Despite the outcry over phone-data gathering this week, Sir Veillance is our new hero. (And don’t we need them!) And there is an expanding capacity for reading the results. In Israel, they recently developed a computer that can scan the hours and years of video footage and identify significant differences. Quickly. (Previously, someone had to look at all the coverage.) There could be benefits: If you've lost your glasses or your car key, you could call the video bank and find out where they are.

The principle of surveillance is that some people are a little different from others, and you can recognize suspiciousness and danger if you watch them long enough. Take Anton Chigurh (that’s Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men). Look at the coverage of him. There he is walking into a convenience store with that curious shuffling step he has, not to mention the catatonic expression and the bicycle pump. All of a sudden, a car parked outside blows up. There’s chaos in the store. Everyone goes to take a look. But not Anton. He ignores it. He never notices it. That character’s on his way to an Oscar.

Now, there are different ways of responding to his lack of response. Anton might be deaf: He does seem like someone who isn’t hearing other people. It could be that he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. But, if you’re studying the surveillance (assuming there was any out in West Texas), you could propose to your senior officer at Langley that Chigurh didn’t react because he knew it was going to happen, because he set the explosive device himself! In a nutshell, he’s behaving like someone in a Coen Brothers film, where just about anywhere you look, you’re seeing some pretty different and suspicious behavior. And what kind of name is “Anton Chigurh” anyway?

What I’m alluding to is that some weeks ago on the startled streets of Boston, there was surveillance coverage from which people concluded, either those guys are very different, or very suspicious, or they think they’re in a movie. Don’t dismiss that last suggestion as an attempt at a joke, bordering on bad taste. There is a lot of that attitudinizing around these days, a lot of us who are striding through a scenario—and don’t knock bad taste either, because sometimes you have to offend people before they notice what is happening.

As far as you and I know, the Marathon thing has been tidied up—case closed. In just a matter of days, the authorities were saying, OK, folks, this is what happened. Take it easy, and maybe let’s fund the surveillance programs a bit better. I am not becoming an alarmist: I don’t have to be, I was born alarmed. But I have been here before. It will be 50 years ago this November that a man took some 8 mm film footage in another place in Texas, and lo and behold those rather jerky, fluttery frames (about 400 of them) became the answer to what happened. So it could be said, OK folks, we know what happened. Take it easy. And if people looked and wondered at the way one of the bullets grazed the president’s scalp and tossed it back on the trunk of the car, there were authorities ready to say, Oh, come on buddy, you’ve been seeing too many adventure movies where people get shot. But the irony is that the single thing that makes November 22, 1963 a locus of uncertainty is those frames of film. If they had never existed, if Abraham Zapruder—the man who shot the assassination footage—had stayed home, the official verdict would be pretty secure. But it’s the film, the one thing that the authorities said would settle it, that has allowed doubt to flower.

On the streets of Boston that day there were people who didn’t react. They were so indifferent you had to wonder. So Marathon day is going to have a big impact on the surveillance movement. Sir Veillance could turn out to be one of our knights at the round table in Langley. If you have enough surveillance, and proper interpretation strategies, you can know who killed you. For years, London could boast that it was the city in the world with the most surveillance cameras, and that seemed appropriate because the Brits are so chronically furtive they need to watch themselves all the time. But England is also the country where there is a ministry of funny walks, as if to say, well, don’t people have a right to be different, eccentric, or lost?

And really, let’s face it: In these vexed circumstances, when your phone can be tapped and your e-mails gathered, is it really any fatal step to suggest that every residence should have its Eye, like banks and hospitals and museums and subway trains? Even the legal scholars argue that if you insist on privacy being in the Constitution then we have to have some way of measuring it. Who can resist the case for getting the Chigurhs before they strike? Well, I will. Have you ever stood on a corner, or outside a movie theater, waiting for her to turn up, or him, and they never did (a part of you is still waiting)? And are you ready to show up flagged on the footage as someone loitering or behaving suspiciously or someone who maybe needs to be taken into custody? There are so many differences, or there used to be. Some people wear Muslim dress, or red hats, Groucho mustaches, or silly inexplicable grins on their faces. Some of us have funny walks and odder habits. We are obese or disobedient. We smoke! Some people on a sunny morning may open up an umbrella without ever knowing they’re in a movie or on camera. People do the craziest things without having to be locked up. You see, the more Sir Veillance watches us, the more codified we become and the less happy with difference. But that’s a dangerous day, for it will announce that it is safer now not to be yourself, not to be different, but to behave in a way so that the computer won’t flag you. Sir Veillance seems like our hero, but if you were a black knight or a determined Merlin isn’t that just the way you’d want to look?

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.