Big Brother Amtrak and the Vigilant Environment

It’s cliche to speak of a post-9/11 world, but there you have it. Things have changed. I flew from Newark to Narita airport the other day and flashed back to my childhood in the 1970s when anyone could go through airport security and wait at the gate for their loved ones to arrive. It might as well have been the bus station. It’s not that there wasn’t terrorism in the 1970’s. Hell, the world was aghast at the incident at the Munich Olympics and it seemed that every other week there was a hijacking somewhere or a bombing of some kind somewhere else.

For the most part, however, terrorism was something that happened elsewhere to other people and not to Americans on terra firma USA. Shadowy Middle Easterners were the thing of the film business and I suppose most Americans were still reeling from a generation of Vietnam, Watergate, and the imposing Soviet threat. Most people were more worried about all out nuclear war with the Soviets, made all the more real by the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So, we are post-9/11 and smack in the middle of a generation of paranoia and fear. It’s a wonder how the world functioned during the 2nd half of the 20th century with so much “terror” and so few overt surveillance and security measures. You could still light matches on an airplane and chain smoke from New York to Los Angeles if you liked. I don’t think people are particularly more violent, ruthless, clever, or demented today than they were a generation ago, and certainly not more so than in the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition at any rate. Still, the US in all its technological glory reacted, and reacted with sweeping and powerful force. A handful of men wielding box cutters hijacked some planes, synchronizing their efforts with a little help from the airline timetables, a couple of wristwatches, and a few saturdays of pilot lessons. It could have been pulled off in 1960, or 1950, or 1940 for that matter.

Television made everyone, everywhere instantly aware of the horrors of the 9/11 attacks. Breathless news casters reported on every gory image and, oh, were there images. No one who witnessed the event, either live or on television, will ever be able to get those images out of their minds. We all lived it together. Everyone was there.

That brings me to the title of this piece. On my way to Newark from Philadelphia I stopped at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. I’ve been a resident and/or frequent visitor to the Philadelphia area for 20 years and have waited at 30th Street Station more times than I can count. In recent years, the station has undergone its own version of urban renewal with cleaner environs and more comfortable concessions and amenities. It’s a beautiful public space. This visit, however, was a bit different.

Adjacent to each seating area stand monitors about 5 foot tall, playing an endless loop of security information. Although the volume on the monitors is kept at a reasonably low level, there is an unmistakable drone of narration, information, and production music. It permeates the environment as television will do. Anyone of relatively healthy hearing ability, sitting anywhere in the designated waiting area, will be able to pick up the messages of vigilance, offered in that unmistakable security-industry tone…at once bold, heroic, and cautionary. I’ve cut together a short selection of the videos for your viewing:

At the end of the canine officer clip I can be heard saying, “Yeah. Yeah.” At the moment I began to record the monitor with my iPhone a security officer began inching slowly towards me staring hotly at my back. I was aware of his gaze, but kept recording anyway. As soon as he was within 8-10 feet of me he asked me if the baggage standing about 3 feet from me were mine. In fact, it couldn’t have been more obvious. I imagine he might have been simply trying to make me feel self-conscious, but no sense reading more into it than I can objectively prove. I recorded a second clip, as you saw, and then proceeded to my gate a few minutes later. I was pulled out of line and my bags were swiped with chemical, explosive detectors and they asked me a few questions. I wasn’t the only one, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my surveillance of the surveilors was unappreciated.

One might read into the tone of this piece and glean that I think surveillance and security are either unnecessary or overblown. Maybe that’s partly true. I’ve always said that terrorists could easily buy a few automatic weapons and hand grenades and attack 5 or 6 shopping malls around the country at the same time if they were interested in sending the country into a greater frenzy. A committed group could do that repeatedly if they planned enough to do so. In Israel, a nation wall-to-wall with both security measures and violent radicals, nothing can prevent bus bombings and all manner of other hideous and unimaginable violence.

I do understand the necessity of “beefed up security” and the need to be ahead of those who would use modern communication technology to plan and organize such violence. In fact, we are not living in the same world we did 10 years ago. We don’t live in the same world we did 50 or 100 years ago either. Things change and we will always change with them. It’s the quality and nature of the change that I think bears some scrutiny, and in this case I’m not as much questioning the security or surveillance as I am the way that television transforms public spaces on behalf of security and surveillance.

In societies that have experienced war or violence in the form of terrorism, the public is asked to remain vigilant, and rightly so. One citizens eyes could be the difference between prevention and disaster, so it only makes sense that the public is occasionally reminded of this helpful duty. In fact, reminding the public of this duty in the very places in which most terror violence occurs, commuter stations, seems reasonable as well. How do we accomplish this goal within a reasonable limit? What’ appropriate to our safety without going overboard? How vigilant is vigilant enough?

From a security organization’s standpoint, they can’t do it all, but in the end they will be responsible for whatever violence occurs on their watch. Understandable. They will always err on the side of hyper-vigilance and will encourage all of us to participate. The television monitors in the Amtrak stations (I also saw them in a different form at NY Penn Station) permeate the environment with the symbolic quality of hyper-vigilance. Security speak, security/police tonality, authoritative imagery, narratives of heroism, patriotism, and duty. The train station, like the airport, used to be a public space of social importance. It was an integral part of the public sphere, not to mention the business environment. The hyper-vigilant television environment changes all of that. Public space is a space of egg shells where strangers must always be suspicious of other strangers and no one is a neighbor as much as a potential criminal.

Did Al Qaeda do that to us, or did we do it to ourselves? When does vigilance become an environment on its own, superseding all other environments? Television certainly plays a role in answering that question for us. You decide if it’s for better or for worse.

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About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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