No Panic Room

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I just got around to seeing the latest film from the always interesting director David Fincher, (Seven, The Game, Fight Club). Panic Room, starring Jodie Foster, is not the heady puzzler that these other films are but it is enjoyable for what it is: A contemporary Hitchcock style suspense film made in Fincher’s trademark atmospheric style. (See James Berardinelli’s film review). I was surprised I hadn’t heard more about it in libertarian circles though since the film centers on a recent innovation in private defense that is a direct response to a lack of confidence in the State’s ability to defend us. The film makes this explicit. When Jodie Foster’s character comes across the panic room on the real estate agent’s tour, her friend enthuses, “This is perfect. The alarm goes off in the middle of the night. What will you do? Call the police and wait till Tuesday? Traipse downstairs in your underthings to check it out? I think not.” The real estate agent describes the features of the panic room: “Concrete walls. Buried phone line, not connected to the house’s main line. Call the police, nobody can cut you off. You have your own ventilation system. A bank of surveillance monitors that covers nearly every corner of the house.”

An article on real panic rooms in the Observer notes that “Security experts have revealed a huge surge in demand for so-called panic rooms since the 11 September attacks and recent rises in violent crime and burglaries.” In other words, the State is failing at its job of protecting us from attackers foreign and domestic, so entrepreneurs are stepping in to fill a rising demand for real defense. (The real panic rooms described in the article sound exactly like the room featured in the film, by the way. So if you’re curious about these rooms, check the film out). As usual, this new innovation is being bought first by those who can afford to pay the steep early adopter prices, companies and rich individuals. Most famously, the Observer notes, “Celebrities understood to have invested in the hi-tech safe rooms include Madonna and Sir Paul McCartney — whose fellow Beatle, George Harrison, was stabbed 10 times when a deranged intruder broke into his 120-room mansion in 1999.” But the market is quickly doing its usual miracle of bringing yesterday’s expensive novelty to the masses today. The article notes that panic rooms can be had for as little as 2,000 and a security firm representative predicts that “In a few years every new home may be constructed with a protected room that acts as the last bastion of safety and is resistant to attack. There are already thousands of such rooms in existence.”

All that is interesting enough. But what really led me to write about Panic Room was a more melancholy thought. The design of these panic rooms usually includes a separate phone line so that, once inside, the police can be alerted. The Observer article notes that these rooms “are designed to withstand an attack from a determined intruder for up to 30 minutes.” So the point is not to withstand a sustained siege, but to hold out long enough for the troops to come riding over the hill. But what if the attacker is the police? Or the BATF? How much of a difference would some panic rooms have made at Waco for the Branch Davidians? The State, unlike an ordinary criminal, can just sit outside whatever private defense we can construct and wait us out or roll over our panic rooms with tanks. If the centralized State comes for it’s own citizens with mass murder in mind, as happened numerous times throughout the twentieth century, who do we use that dedicated phone line to call? The city or state governments? That’s a joke. Local and regional governments have been reduced to extensions of our central government. If we call our security companies they’re not going to help us, they’ll be held accountable by the government as “accomplices” and there is no truly independent judiciary to judge between ourselves, our security companies and the State. Panic rooms may truly be effective in offering another line of defense from criminal or terrorist attack. But from attacks by the State, there are no panic rooms left.

Stephen W. Carson [send him mail] works as a software engineer, studies Political Economy at the graduate level at Washington University and works with inner city children in St. Louis through a ministry of his church. See his reviews of Films on Liberty.

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