A security camera can be seen on the corner of St. Louis St. and Bourbon Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans, La., Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The City Council is proposing far-reaching ordinance that makes substantial changes to the way the city regulates bars.

Advocate staff photo by MAX BECHERER

If you don't want to be videotaped every time you go into a bar, you'll have to drink outside Orleans Parish.

Crossing the 17th Street Canal has been like traveling back in time ever since the New Orleans City Council made all the saloons smoke-free in 2015. The 'burbs will seem like even more of a throwback if the council now approves Mayor Mitch Landrieu's latest crime-fighting plan.

While nobody will be able to slip unnoticed into the pure atmosphere of a New Orleans saloon, nameless topers in other parishes will belly up to the bar through clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke. This is quite a reversal. Those bent on sin have always flooded into New Orleans; now the traffic could be all the other way.

The plan is that, for the sake of deterring and solving crime, all businesses selling alcohol will be required to install exterior TV cameras that will be linked to a network monitored by city employees and the occasional cop. Of the legion objections, the least surprising is that this constitutes an invasion of privacy. Inevitable this objection may be, but it is wide of the mark. There can by definition be no invasion of privacy on a public street; we are a long way from installing cameras in the boudoir.

Still, we are all so wary of mass surveillance, and justly so, that even people who have never read of word of 1984 will cry “Orwellian” at the drop of a hat.

Bar owners have been squawking too, with one of them claiming that a “theoretical association between drinking and criminal activity” is being used to justify an intrusion that will make his customers “deeply uncomfortable.”

The link between alcohol and crime is, of course, far from theoretical. Drinking famously removes inhibitions and undermines the judgment, while plenty of people will turn violent and aggressive in their cups. Some crimes, principally DWI, wouldn't even exist but for alcohol. There is no point in denying that far fewer offenses would be committed in a sober world.

Indeed, not all bar owners seem inclined to dispute the proposition, and French Quarter revelers are already practically certain to be videotaped. All 70 businesses on and around Bourbon Street that make up the French Quarter Business League have cameras already.

The city already has 200 crime cameras set up, and, if the council approves Landrieu's plan, another 1500 installed by bars, restaurants and stores will be added to the network.

Such intense surveillance can hardly fail to have an impact, as experience elsewhere confirms. CCTV footage proved crucial in the search for perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and the recent explosion in the London tube, for instance. Although there appears to be no doubt about the efficacy of CCTV after the fact, to what extent it deters crime is necessarily up in the air. In some places, they have been found to reduce crime rates, while they have apparently had little effect in others. Much depends on where the cameras are erected and how efficiently they are monitored.

Common sense suggests that people will be less likely to break the law if they know they are being watched, but logic may not apply when passions are aroused. Still, if cameras may not prevent an assault committed on the spur of the moment, they will make sure the perp doesn't get away with it.

The right to privacy that surveillance cameras supposedly threaten is an illusion especially hard to sustain in the days of the ubiquitous smartphone. Some passer-by will inevitably photograph or film any happening of even the most modest interest — or, indeed, no interest at all — so your pretty face is liable to be captured any time you go out.

That we have to accept, but it does not mean that a government-run surveillance system should give us no pause. Whenever officialdom tracks the citizenry, some abuse is virtually inevitable. Cameras elsewhere have enabled cops to stalk women, and harass black people, for instance.

But every one of us will be affected. The sense of being watched will induce a yen to relive the good old days. It won't take long to get there.

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