On Native Ground
A NATION OF SNITCHES?
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The federal government is trying to recruit mail carriers, utility workers, bus drivers and other folks who interact with the public to become voluntary informants for the Justice Department.
Up to one million volunteers are set to participate in the Citizen Corps' pilot program called the Terrorism Information and Prevention System (or Operation TIPS). The volunteers would be trained by the Justice Department to report any "suspicious and potentially terrorist activity" to law enforcement agencies.
TIPS, scheduled for an August launch, is just starting to get attention in the mainstream press. It should get attention, for the possibility of a national network of snoops and snitches should raise a whole lot of warning flags.
It's not much of a stretch to think that meter readers, cable TV installers and mail carriers - people who enter your home in the course of doing their jobs - can be used as a quick and easy way to get around the necessity of getting a search warrant.
It's even less of a stretch to think that any person of Middle Eastern descent wearing head wrappings and speaking in Arabic would be considered "suspicious." Or that the definition of "suspicious activity" might be extended to people who think President Bush is a dangerous moron or who oppose his"war on terror." Does participating in an anti-war protest, subscribing to left-of-center publications or buying a Noam Chomsky book constitute "suspicious terrorist activity?"
The Justice Department is assuring us that Operation TIPS exists to report unusual and suspicious activity, not people. Attorney General John Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee that there are no plans to create a database of information; TIPS will simply forward it the appropriate law enforcement agencies.
Do you trust Ashcroft? I don't, and given the dismal track record of the federal government in the area of protecting civil liberties, I don't see a reason to expect TIPS to be anything other than a government spy operation. There are no guarantees that TIPS won't be used as a way to spy on citizens. Given the anti-Arab sentiment in America, you can bet it will be a tool to harass those folks. And what does a professional terrorist look like anyway? The potential is immense for phony information.
There doesn't seem to be a great deal of outrage regarding TIPS, aside from the usual civil libertarians. Maybe it's because snitching on our neighbor has become ingrained in our culture.
Since the Columbine massacre, students have been encouraged to call tip lines to rat out any of their classmates that may be displaying "anti-social" behavior. Spying in the workplace raises few eyebrows; it's taken for granted that your employer can monitor your phone and e-mail use. Surveillance cameras are everywhere and your health or credit records can be peaked by marketers, banks or the cops without you ever knowing about it.
Privacy is tough to come by these days, but TIPS ups the ante for snitching. If the federal government recruits as many people as it hopes, one in 24 Americans will be a snitch. Not even the Stasi, East Germany's notorious secret police agency, had that high a ratio of informants to citizens.
Only countries with authoritarian regimes use informant networks. The reason is simple. If people know they're being watched, they are apt to obey authority - especially if there's a clear penalty for behavior that's not government approved. A nation of snitches means a citizenry that's isolated, fearful and paranoid; a citizenry that's easier to rule.
That is not the kind of country I want to live in. We've seen too many instances in the months since the Sept. 11 attacks where 200 years of civil liberties have been casually tossed aside in the name of fighting terrorism. TIPS is just another example of this.
We don't need a nation of snitches to feel safer. TIPS is simply a bad idea that should be shelved immediately.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).