by Jayson Hawkins
The 9/11 attacks were a rare historic moment, a watershed event that recast the American experience at home and abroad.
While most discussions of this phenomenon have focused on impacts felt equally across the nation—wars; Islamophobia; new hassles at airports; the nagging fear that contrary to all rational probability, the next attack would be aimed at you. But for New Yorkers, the echoes of 9/11 had more substance, and the real trauma so many residents of that city felt led to the adoption of increasingly stringent security measures as the so-called war on terror progressed.
In recent years, the growth of the city-wide security network has become a point of contention as memories of the attacks fade and the heavy hand of an ever-present security apparatus makes itself felt.
One of the more noticeable aspects of this apparatus is the frequency of ID checkpoints across the city. Albert Fox Cahn reported for Wired that while “‘papers, please’ was once synonymous with foreign authoritarianism, photo ID has become an ever-present requirement.”
Before 9/11, a person would move around the city all day without needing an ID, but now photo IDs are required to enter any large building or institution.
For most New Yorkers, showing ID has become routine, but for those who lack ID or fear showing ID exposes them to attention from immigration police, the routine is more than an inconvenience.
Mizue Aizeki at the New York-based Immigrant Defense Project says, “ID systems are particularly vulnerable to become tools of surveillance … data collection analysis has become increasingly central to ICE’s ability to identify and track immigrants.”
Less visible but more ubiquitous is the network of surveillance cameras that blankets the city. There is no official census for cameras in New York, but Amnesty International located 15,000 NYPD cameras in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. If these numbers approximate the number of police surveillance cameras in the three most populous boroughs, then it is quite possible that the total number approaches 25,000. Added to this array is an equal number of private cameras that feed data into a city-wide police monitoring system.
As the number and quality of cameras has grown so, too, has the ability of electronic watchers to mine surveillance for facial recognition, gait detection, and “threat assessment.”
The NYPD has spent more than $159 million to update their data analysis and fusion capability in recent years, adding new sensors and artificial-intelligence processing to the Orwellian-sounding NYPD Domain Awareness System.
The changes in the city are also physical. Steel fences, concrete barriers, and streets near government buildings that were closed to traffic have chopped up the continuity of the cityscape.
As social media echo chambers have created separate societies within a society, so too has the new urban landscape of America’s premier city.
Albert Fox Cahn’s lament for the old New York is also a warning, “we heard patriotic platitudes from those who promised to ‘defend democracy!’ But in the ensuing years became democracy’s gravest threat, reconstructing cities as security spaces … and it’s unclear if we’ll be able to turn back the trend.”
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