The September 11, 2001 attack on New York City was the largest organized terrorist attack in U.S. history, resulting in the loss of nearly 3,000 American lives. Unexpected and devastating, it spurred a nationwide emergence in paranoia surrounding potential threats to the American lifestyle not seen since the Cold War. The possibility of sleeper cells conducting major attacks on U.S. soil gave rise to a movement entailing widespread national surveillance spearheaded by the Patriot Act, enabling personal data collection and enhanced investigatory techniques for suspected terrorists. Most Americans eagerly embraced the sacrifice of privacy, motivated by fear and insecurity.
Person of Interest (2011-) is a TV series following ex-CIA agent John Ries and computer genius Harold Finch, accomplices in fighting petty crimes in New York City. In an attempt to improve national security in a post 9/11 world, the government commissions Finch to create a surveillance supercomputer, dubbed “the Machine,” capable of tapping into every security camera and cell phone in New York. With access to millions of citizens’ personal data, the government apprehends suspected terrorists, many of whom are found by Finch to be innocent. The government’s corrupt use of the Machine and infringement on personal privacy rights highlights the moral dilemma of such extensive surveillance, even in the interest of national security.
Person of Interest embodies the Post 9/11 mentality that increased privacy is subordinate to national security. Yet, this mindset is simply a modern re-emergence of Cold War containment culture, specifically resembling the “Red Scare” and the national call for vigilance in weeding out Communist threats to American society. Afraid of perceived threats to American society from Communist infiltrators during the Cold War, the government organized files on suspected communists and urged American citizens to spy on neighbors and even family. Large scale surveillance was the most effective perceived method to combat national threats. Person of Interest assesses these Cold War aspirations of certainty and safety as natural human behavior. To what extent does surveillance infringe upon human rights? The means of seeking security, then and now, may be unethical, but fear and suspicion are overwhelming sentiments capable of driving an entire nation to take drastic measures; privacy is readily abandoned in a world of insecurity.