News & Politics

The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age

“A readable examination of technologies that may help create a safer citizenry—but that may not.”

 The Naked Crowd is George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen’s term for a vulnerable public—an extension of the Naked Machine, his nickname for an airport device tested after 9/11. The machine creates a three-dimensional naked image of anyone passing through it, allowing screeners to detect dangerous objects. An alternate prototype, which Rosen calls the Blob Machine, “extracts the images of concealed objects and projects them onto a sexless mannequin.”

 “For those who care about preserving both liberty and security,” Rosen writes, “the choice between the Blob Machine and the Naked Machine might seem to be easy. But . . . I’ve been struck by a surprising pattern: There are always some people who say they would prefer, at the airport, to go through the Naked Machine than the Blob Machine.”

 The upshot of the reasons why: “They don’t care . . . whether or not the Naked Machine makes them safer than the Blob Machine because they are more concerned about feeling safe than being safe.”

 This dichotomy is at the heart of Rosen’s readable book, an examination of technologies that may help create a safer citizenry—but that may not.

 Rosen is good at “get real” descriptions of scenarios that many already take for granted: “It is now commonplace to see frail old ladies frisked like street hoodlums, their high-heeled shoes at their sides and their arms spread helplessly as they are wanded by uniformed guards. This indignity serves no security purpose. . . . It is designed to remind American travelers, in the most visible and dramatic way possible, of the country’s unshakable commitment to equality.”

 One chapter dissects the psychology of fear; another looks at legal efforts to shore up security. During a side trip into reality TV, Rosen writes: “Americans are perfectly happy to violate their own privacy, and those of strangers, as long as they have an illusion of control over the conditions under which the violation occurs.”

 Rosen’s opinionated book is more a call to accountability and rethinking the status quo than a five- or ten-point plan. Trust, he says, is “the most important factor in avoiding mass panic,” fear “our most intractable enemy.” The former isn’t easy to come by, the latter sometimes so pervasive we hardly know it’s there.

Jeffrey Rosen

Random House


Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.