The government says it will recruit millions of informers to serve as "extra eyes and ears for law enforcement" at the local level, reporting what the citizen-snoops consider "suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity." That's potentially terrorist-related -- like a bumper sticker in Arabic on a neighbor's car, perhaps? Or someone not flying a flag on a national holiday?
Over the past year, administration officials have assured us that the suspension of civil rights they initiated in the panic following the Sept. 11 attacks was not intended for law-abiding folks like you and me -- only for those malignant characters, mostly foreign, suspected of "terrorism." But that begs the crucial question: Suspected by whom? Now we have an answer: your neighborhood informer -- a bus driver, say, or the meter reader.
In the pilot stage of this "national reporting system," scheduled for launch in August, there will be one million workers. A more ambitious "national rollout" will follow, adding more millions of informers. Who will be chosen as citizen-snoops? The administration says "truck drivers, bus drivers, train conductors, mail carriers, utility readers, ship captains, and port personnel are ideally suited to help in the anti-terrorism effort because their routines allow them to recognize unusual events." The words "unusual" and "suspicious" are used synonymously and are key to understanding why the program can only become what Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge denies it will be -- a network of citizens spying on each other.
Back in the 1960s, I and scores of others received threatening letters from a paramilitary organization called the Minutemen of California, a group of self-styled "patriots" who practiced with weapons in the Sierra Mountains for the day when they would be called upon to save America from a Communist takeover. Their unsigned "Dear Comrade" letters said in part: "It has come to our attention that in the past you have made unpatriotic statements. You have also participated in certain activities which are deemed detrimental to the preservation of our Republic."
An investigation of the mailed threats focused on a mail carrier, who chose to resign rather than face a Post Office hearing for misusing his official position. That man had delivered my mail one day a week, as a substitute carrier. He knew who was sending me mail. He must have thought he knew suspicious activity when he saw it, and to him that apparently included mail sent by organizations he personally deemed subversive, including Jewish newspapers.
Now, 36 years later, the man checking up on me will not be a self-appointed watchdog for an ultra-rightwing paramilitary group. His snooping will be sanctioned by the US Department of Justice. In recent decades, we've all read about similar government-organized networks of citizen-snoops. They are common tools of secret police in nations usually characterized as "totalitarian" -- places like Soviet-era East Germany. And we certainly have shameful examples in our own history of mass suspicion run amok.
Even in the past year, thousands of our neighbors have been rounded up and held incommunicado, without access to the constitutionally guaranteed protections of the American judicial system. Others, who were not arrested, were nevertheless shunned, vilified -- even shot at -- by their neighbors because of their ancestry, religion or skin color; because they wore head wrappings, or because they were otherwise suspiciously "different" from their neighbors.
No one can know yet how the new national network of citizen-snoops will work. (Wednesday, the Postal Service announced it would not take part in Operation TIPS.) But based on past experience, I think I can guess the color, religion and nationality of most of the people whose activities our fellow citizens will find "suspicious" or "unusual."
Survival tips for August: Be nice to the meter reader, the mail carrier and the bus driver. Beware of associating with people who look different or corresponding with organizations with foreign names. And, above all, don't look suspicious. The US Department of Justice is watching you.
Peter Y. Sussman is a California writer and editor and the co-author with Dannie M. Martin of Committing Journalism.