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Panopticon, New Jersey

by Kevin D. Williamson

A note on the age of scaring ourselves safe

Jersey City, N.J. — Police chief Tom Comey calls it his “eye in the sky.” Jeremy Bentham called it “the Panopticon,” and the idea has been around for a while: “Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated — instruction diffused — public burdens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the Gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!” wrote Bentham in perfervid praise of his brother Samuel’s innovative prison blueprint. In the case of Jersey City, the relevant piece of architecture is a rolling three-story guard tower equipped with 360-degree views, a variety of sensors, and the ability to be operated remotely. Bentham’s Panopticon was to be the ideal enclosure for criminals; U.S. police authorities are building something similar, with an important difference: All of us are inside their new Panopticon.

This city is, by the standards of urban New Jersey, not the worst place. It has some rather nice stretches and some godawful ones, but it does not feel much like the grimy, post-apocalyptic nightmares of Trenton and Newark, both places with a roll-’em-up-and-lock-’em vibe about them. Jersey City certainly is nothing like perennial national murder capital Camden. It is, however, in the direct line of sight of lower Manhattan and the new World Trade Center, which pushes a lot of national-security buttons. But while potential port-security applications were cited in favor of the new tower, it made its maiden voyage far away from any terrorism hot spot, on a particularly nasty-looking and crime-ridden stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard near a plaza known as the “hub,” which is home to a grim McDonald’s and a number of storefronts, many of them for local services agencies.

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