In 2002 I spent New Years Eve in New York City with a bunch of friends. We were wise enough to avoid the silliness of Lower Manhattan and Times Square on the big night, but we spent plenty of time on the island in the preceding days. With 9/11 still a fresh wound, the city was more worried than usual about the possibility of a terrorist attack during such a highly visible and crowded event. Accordingly, every cop in New York City was on the streets of Manhattan between Christmas and January 1. Some of them looked like they were pushing Social Security age. Some were obviously desk cops who hadn't worked the street in years, or maybe decades. Nearly all were heavily armed, with AR-15 type rifles slung over shoulders a common sight in on Wall Street and in Midtown.
Such shows of force are intended to make the public feel safer. Yet the more of this I saw, the less safe I felt. Some of that feeling was practical – The idea of old, rusty cops with itchy trigger fingers armed with military rifles they probably have no idea how to use is not a reassuring one under any circumstances – but some of it was purely emotional. Seeing armed cops every five feet didn't make anything seem safer; it merely reminded me that there are cops everywhere because they expect something really bad to happen. And the more cops and more guns there are in one place, the more likely that "Something bad will happen" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
I am an ocean away, but what little I've seen of the Olympics (and the media coverage thereof) bears a striking resemblance to what I felt a decade ago in New York. It has all the trappings of complete security overkill. Granted, UK politicians cannot be blamed for treating terrorism as a serious threat; the Olympics are and have been a target and the UK has suffered terrorist attacks on its own soil in recent memory. Nonetheless, the security measures in place seem to have created an event that potential fans would rather avoid than enjoy. Nothing says "Welcome to London, enjoy the games!" quite like anti-aircraft missiles on apartment rooftops, a ten-foot tall, eleven-mile long (!) electrified (!!!) fence surrounding the main stadium and facilities, a city-wide network of CCTV surveillance and aerial drones, and more British Armed Forces personnel on the ground (including 7,500 elite Royal Marines) than have been on British soil since the Second World War.
Is that making you feel safe? Maybe I'm a wimp, but that looks like the kind of event I prefer to avoid. To the extent possible, I try to stay away from enclosed areas teeming with armed cops, soldiers, and other people expecting the worst and possessing the right to shoot at me. Maybe this merely reflects Americans' increasing tendency to see the police as a menace to be avoided at all costs, or perhaps it speaks to the larger problem of trying to confront our fears as a society with bigger guns and more of them. It's easy to look at the security preparations and say, "It's sad that we live in a world in which all of this is necessary" and much harder to take the time to question whether it really is.