A couple of decades ago, I developed an instinctive fear of helicopters. The reason? In the early 1990s, I started my career as a rookie reporter in the former Soviet Union, chasing stories of political uprising and revolt. As I journeyed from remote city to remote city, I learnt that one signal of impending drama was the sound of helicopters: when tensions rose, they would appear in the skies and hover menacingly over the streets.

Normally, these machines were used just to monitor the crowds. But sometimes they were deployed to drop propaganda leaflets — or even open fire — on the people below. Either way, in subsequent years my heart pounded with an involuntary spasm of panic whenever I heard the sound of helicopter blades echoing off buildings. And that “clack-clack” noise still invokes bad memories of anonymous government figures trying to impose control.

But last week my attitude towards helicopters changed. The venue was the unlikely spot of New York’s Times Square, where I spent New Year’s Eve celebrating the start of 2016. Unsurprisingly, the roads in central Manhattan were packed with tens of thousands of revellers, all keen to watch the (in)famous “ball drop” and listen to singers such as Jessie J perform. And, equally unsurprisingly, security was high. Since the venue was considered a possible terrorist target, onlookers were frisked as they arrived, policemen dotted the streets and helicopters hovered overhead, flying so low that the sound of their blades almost drowned out the songs.

As midnight approached and I listened to the “clack-clack” sound, I suddenly realised that I did not have my usual spasm of fear. On the contrary, I felt a gentle wave of relief. The presence of those helicopters underlined more clearly than anything else that the crowd was being watched. Rational or not, this made me feel that a terrorist attack was less likely to occur.

So, while a couple of decades ago I had learnt to loathe the idea of officialdom spying on me from the sky, as 2015 turned into 2016, I suddenly discovered (to my shame) that I quite like the idea of being monitored. The alternative — to be exposed to terrorist threats — seems worse.

Is this a good thing? Or is it a sign that we are inexorably losing our moral compass? That is a question that we will all need to ask ourselves this year, as terrorist threats keep rising — along with the ability of western governments to track their citizens in all manner of ways (of which helicopters are one of the most obvious).

© Shonagh Rae

The signs are that popular opinion is profoundly ambivalent. According to two separate surveys by the Gallup and Pew research groups, just over half of all Americans today are very worried about the degree of electronic surveillance. Indeed, according to Pew, 74 per cent say that they do not want to sacrifice their privacy and civil liberties for security reasons. A decade ago this figure was 60 per cent.

In some senses, this is no surprise. As individuals such as Edward Snowden have shown, the capacity of government agencies to spy on us all has risen sharply in the past few years. But what is equally notable is that Pew surveys also show that half of all Americans fear the government is not doing enough to protect them from terrorism. A CNN poll suggests that two-thirds of Americans want to see more — not less — government surveillance tracking terrorists, and a WSJ/NBC poll finds that 40 per cent of Americans think that national security should be the top priority for federal government. Voters hate losing their privacy, it seems, but they want the government to do more.

This is contradictory. But it is also understandable. When I look back at Times Square, my first reaction is profound gratitude that security forces kept western capitals safe that night. If that requires endless surveillance, I am willing to accept it. Or, at least, I am if I don’t have to think too hard about the consequences. While I know that a helicopter manned by US security officials (or traffic cops) is a completely different matter from malignant Soviet bureaucrats, it is precisely because I have seen a communist state — and read books by George Orwell — that I have always felt passionate about the need to defend civil liberties and privacy, almost at all costs. A world where it is normal for helicopters to hover over crowds — and thousands of security cameras watch the streets — is not a place I ever expected to see, much less relish or consider normal.

The net result, then, is that I feel torn. I want to feel safe. But I want to feel private too, and I simply do not know which is more important today. The only thing that seems clear is that this contradiction is likely to deepen for us all in 2016. Happy — nervous — New Year.

gillian.tett@ft.com

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

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