The Surveillance State and Me

by Jeremy Beer on March 23, 2009 · 14 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire

PHOENIX, ARIZONA. Three hundred sixty bucks. Two tickets. Over the course of one month. Handed to me not be an overzealous rookie or a peace officer with a quota to meet or . . . well, even by a human being. But by a camera. A camera with perversely rigid views in re. traffic laws. Views arrived at through no fault of its own, I hasten to add. Alas, that doesn’t make my tickets any easier to swallow.

Since they were installed on Phoenix-area highways a couple of years ago, the “speed enforcement” cameras have sparked controversy and don’t-tread-on-me acts of resistance–often perpetrated with humor, as with the freedom fighters who covered up some of the cameras’ lenses with silly string while dressed in Santa Claus outfits, and sometimes perpetrated with blunt violence (hatchets seem to work well). I am not, obviously, an uninterested observer in the debate over whether the speed cameras are a good idea. Nevertheless, allow me to outline the brief-it need only be brief-case against these pestilential tools of tyranny.

Begin with my case, or rather cases: I don’t remember where precisely I was or what precisely I was doing when Camera #1 clocked me doing 67 in a 55. But I had just received that citation in the mail when I got nailed by Camera #2, and I remember that one well. Traveling southbound on Squaw Peak (er, I mean, Piestewa Peak–”Squaw” having recently been discovered by Anglos to be an offensive term) Freeway in the early evening amid the usual heavy springtime Valley traffic, I found myself in the leftmost lane with my exit coming up in one and a half miles. Knowing that I needed to get over, like any sane highway driver I decided not to slow down to, say, 45 or 50 mph in order to let the long line of cars in the lanes to my right go by, but instead tapped on the accelerator just enough to get a safe lead on the car that was sitting in my passenger-side blind spot. As I switched lanes, I looked right into that camera lens and saw the flash go off. (And let me tell you, friend, if a camera can mock, that camera mocked me.) Sure enough, when I looked down the speedometer read 65; at my fastest I had been going, I figured, 67 or 68. And was the limit 55 here? Yup. This fact, plus my speed, were kindly confirmed by the letter that arrived from the Arizona State Department of Public Safety, Automated Traffic Enforcement Division, a few days later.

Now, I don’t expect anyone to cry tears of sympathy for my plight, but c’mon. No cop in his right or even wrong mind would ever have pulled me over and cited me for my little lane-change maneuver. The same basic move is employed by thousands of drivers every day in our nation’s great metropoli. But when I go to traffic court to fight this ticket in a couple of months–assuming that the state serves me in person; until it does, I have no legal obligation to respond–I will not have the opportunity to face my accuser. A seemingly minor custom in our legal tradition, I suppose, but one to which I cling with irrational exuberance. Yes, I will be able to explain what I did and why I did it to some impatient and skeptical judge, but why should he believe me? He won’t be able to measure my claim against a policeman’s words and body language, won’t be able to rely on his knowledge of the officer’s character and usual conduct (“Johnson is an ass; I’m sure he’s screwing this guy,” or “This guy’s impugning Smith, my poker buddy and a god-fearing man; I’m throwing the book at him”) as a gauge of my honesty. We’ll have removed one-half of the human equation. I suspect that that will leave everyone happy but me.

Small-bore stuff, you might say. Special pleading. Hey, I confess it. But the widespread anger aroused by the speed cameras reveals that there is much more at stake here than a few citizens, like me, with axes to grind. More at stake, even, than the disappearance of customary legal safeguards. The cameras arouse fear of Orwellian, state-controlled secret surveillance, of course. And to protect my credibility, I should insert here a cosmopolitan sneer at such fears, but I won’t. I share them, even as I am grateful for the perpetual and perfectly predictable incompetence of our elected officials and unelected bureaucrats.

More than that, though, the cameras arouse rage because they force one to realize (and for some people, this really is a new realization) that the government is not our government–that it is an institution manifestly alien to “us,” an institution that pursues its own aims and ruthlessly follows its own logic. How else, indeed, can one interpret the substitution of mechanically applied technological surveillance for prudentially pursued human law enforcement? Did anyone ask for that? The cameras’ supporters, besides making all the usual arguments about “safety” (arguments that unfortunately carry a lot of weight with many folks), point out that the cameras are a great revenue producer for the state–especially important in these times of great budgetary troubles. They seem oblivious to how this argument only stokes opponents’ rage further. We the people have instituted a government, not a self-perpetuating bureaucracy that is free to abrogate the liberties of those whom it supposedly represents–even for money. If the people won’t allow themselves to be honestly taxed enough to support the services they desire (or that the state wishes to provide for them), the state’s response should not be to act like a corporation fanatically searching for alternative revenue streams. But that is where we are.

Many other arguments can and have been made by the cameras’ opponents, but they all boil down to the idea that the use of these cameras represents, in nontrivial ways, a grave misconstrual of the proper relationship between a people and their alleged government. As a result, the people, or a good number of them, are pissed. How heartening! There is a bill in the legislature that would remove the cameras in 2010, and there are efforts underway to put the cameras to a vote through another quaint populist legal tradition: initiative and referendum. If that doesn’t work, there’s at least one other tradition of the American West on which to fall back: the fine and noble tradition of the monkey wrench.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jason Peters March 23, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Please. Let it be monkey-wrenching. Hayduke the hell out of the whole damn state and, while you’re at it, shout the Hayduke mantra (here sanitized for our delicate readers): “fornicate the fornicating fornicators!”

avatar Marty March 23, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Jeremy,

In many states, a traffic infraction leaves the officer with a great deal of discretion. Like you said, most cops would not pull you over for that “traffic move” and as for other infractions, many cops after they move on from the rookie stage, would use that discretion at the scene .So you won’t have to take a day off from work in order to fight the ticket in court. Maybe trying to get to the hospital, or even just had a fight with the wife and zoned out like we all have. You get a warning anf get back in the driving game. No ticket.

Tickets are a necessary evil. I do not like the cameras. It takes away form the human element.

avatar Marty March 23, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Oh BTW watch out for cameras watching you take apart other cameras :-)

avatar brierrabbit3030 March 23, 2009 at 6:01 pm

My problem with these stupid traffic cameras, is that they are another part of Leviathons constant, and never ending effort to drive the “fudge factor” out of human experience. human existence is, by necessity, somewhat messy, and custom, law and tradition usually allow for this. Not much anymore. Everything is set up to “catch” you. Sick with the flu? Forgot to make the credit card payment on time? Missed it by a day? Your interest rate just went up. Along with the late fee. Ttying to explain to a customer service employee, that you missed because you coudn’t leave the bathroom, with all the diarrhea, and throwing up. “I’m sorry, sir, thats our policy” They got you. Couldn’t get your car tags because you haven’t payed your property taxes, wich happened because the inspection said you needed $300 of repairs to pass. Sorry. Your problem. Now we got Eyes of Sauron, watching you drive. The whole stupid society is becoming like this.
You break a rule, or law, just going out the door, anymore. And it hasn’t made for a better society to live in. Just a more fustrating, and costly one.

avatar forestwalker March 23, 2009 at 7:33 pm

Hadn’t heard of these giving speeding tickets. Those in my area only give citations for flagrantly running red lights. And all those that I know of all seem to be only at either notoriously dangerous intersections or at heavily congested intersections that (formerly) invariably had flow problems due to people blocking the intersection trying to avoid waiting through another light cycle. Perhaps it would be cheaper and/or preferable to have a real cop directing traffic at these intersections, but the gadgets are doing an adequate and needed job. It’s probably not a surprise that the gizmos are managed by the roads authority and not by those with a more direct income-generating motive.

In my parents city, though, the system is run by one of those dreaded public-private partnerships and they seem deliberately designed to trap people. One near their house, especially, must be a cash cow for the city/company. It’s a very large intersection with double left turn lanes. Everyone’s aware that it’s a trap but there’s almost no avoiding tripping the thing when the yellows are only three seconds (literally, we’ve timed them). I first was made aware of it when I was there for a visit and nearly rear-ended the car in front of me whose driver had apparently been trained by experience not to trust a “stale” green arrow and stopped in front of me. She saved me a ticket, though. The car beside me in the other turn lane continued on, the light turned yellow just as he was entering the crosswalk and the camera flashed when he was about 3/4 way through the intersection. Peasants with pitchforks are called for by such oppression.

avatar dgh March 23, 2009 at 8:36 pm

I suggest you tell some smokers to over near the cameras. Given how bad the nanny state hates tobacco, I suspect the cameras will pan over to the nicotine offenders, meanwhile AZ drivers can go on with driving as usual.

avatar Typical Whitey March 23, 2009 at 11:53 pm

Jeremy: great article. I too despise these all-seeing eyes on Arizona roads. They have forced most of us to slow down below the speed limit – which is insane. BTW the contractor collects 60% of the bounty.

avatar Peter March 24, 2009 at 12:31 am

Give them hell, Jeremy. This panopticon regime must end. In the meantime, just memorize the location of those pesky cameras.

avatar Bob Cheeks March 24, 2009 at 7:05 am

Do I sense rebellion in the air?
Monkey wrenching, really!
I remember the scene in THX 1138 when the hero (Robert Duvall?), in high dudgeon, enters a confessional where a picture of a Christ-like character appears on the wall, and a recorded voice says, “Stay calm, everthing will be alright.”
The people have spoken, democratic-socialism has trumped what remained of the olde republic, the suzerainty of the Blessed One is at hand!
Allah Akbar, comrade!
Besides, we’re way too busy and there’s re-runs of Seinfeld to watch.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 24, 2009 at 11:04 am

Yays, let us be thankful and enjoy the opportunity to be on camera for just driving a car and not have to stand in line and be trampled by fellow models in order to be a star. Reality speeding and the prize is a summons from the State. Let us be patriotic in this time of need and gather together in great caravans of speeding patriots, happy to send in what we can to preserve the Bolshevik Hall Monitors. Speeding always has been a form of Stimulus.

avatar kara March 25, 2009 at 8:23 pm

let’s see if we can make it 3 for 3–getting on the Squaw Peak Parkway this evening with crossed fingers…

avatar hcat April 5, 2009 at 5:00 pm

One reason for the litigiousness of our society is precisely the inflexibility of the Organization, so to speak. It will not negotiate; only the guns of a lawsuit won will force it to move. And this isn’t new. A lot of the 60s was backlash to high-tech as it was at the time. It was a time when computers didn’t have screens but occupied whole rooms and were talked to by things called punchcards. I think, Jeremy, you’re too young to remember what “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate” once meant. You’re experiencing it now.

avatar Bruce Smith February 6, 2010 at 8:59 am

In some parts of the Western world it’s been known for the authorities to erect speed camera signs to warn that these cameras are installed somewhere along that stretch of the road. These signs usually just have a symbol of a camera on them and no writing. It’s often a common rumor that tour buses have been seen to stop by these signs and tourists from Far Eastern countries get out en-mass and start taking photographs of whatever buildings or landscape surround the sign. To be told this rumor usually occurs after you’ve received your first speeding ticket. The moral being I think that human gullibility and stupidity knows no boundaries East or West.

avatar hcat February 7, 2010 at 12:12 am

Jason, I looked up ‘HAYDUKE’ in Urban Dictionary and it means to throw a bag over a guy’s head and then gang rape him! I wouldn’t be able to read most comment pages today without the help of Urban Dictionary.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: