Watching you watching them watching us…

I set off to Wikiquote a couple of minutes ago, in search of the origin of the phrase “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, with interesting results. Apparently the common attribution of the saying to Thomas Jefferson is not backed up by any record of it in his published writings, but it does appear in those of one John Curran. He wrote:

“It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; [John Philpot Curran- pub. 1808]

Benjamin Franklin is reported as saying “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

What spurred all this research was a rash of posts and counter-posts, all relating to the Metropolitan Police’s new anti-terrorism poster campaign. Here are some examples.

  • Let’s start with Spyblog, who cite one of the posters here; it’s the poster which says “a bomb won’t go off here, because weeks before, a shopper reported someone studying the CCTV cameras”.
  • Here is Ian Brown’s satirical re-working of the same poster.
  • Here is Cory Doctorow’s comment on the socially corrosive effect of campaigns like this, citing the “CCTV” poster and the “suspicious chemicals” poster.
  • Here is Stuart Langridge’s analysis of the “pernicious, paranoid” campaign.
  • Here is qwghlm’s superb two-word take on it.

None of these concerns, though, is particularly new. Here’s Andreas Whittam-Smith, writing in the Independent back in 2001, on the introduction of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. And in the same article, he quotes John Curran’s remark about eternal vigilance – referring to the election of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and uttered in the same decade as the 1798 Rebellion against the British.

Of course, these days the election of public officials in Dublin is a domestic matter for the Irish – which goes to illustrate another of Whittam-Smith’s points: legislative powers brought in by one government for one set of reasons are often used to very different purposes by subsequent governments of different political character.

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