T.I.P.S. - 'The Rats Are Coming'
By Gabriel Ash - YellowTimes
One of the current Administration's "anti-terror" initiatives is slowly taking shape, and it isn't a pretty sight. TIPS, Terrorism Information and Prevention System (http://www.CitizenCorps.gov/tips.html)*, is a government plan for recruiting millions of Americans to spy and snitch on their neighbors. The recruitment focuses on people with access to homes and businesses, including letter carriers and utility employees.
According to Ritt Goldstein, who broke the news, the Justice Department plans that "the U.S. will have a higher percentage of citizen informants than the former East Germany through the infamous Stasi secret police." One in every 24 Americans will be a snitch, which means that, assuming your acquaintance list is 150 names long, you will know six rats personally.
This is an unprecedented level of government spying on citizens. But such spying has a long pedigree, which helps to make the new initiative seem almost innocuous. Bill Redden describes in his book Snitch Culture, the frightening extent to which Americans are addicted to snitching.
The scope of snitching goes way beyond direct governmental spy operations such as COINTELPRO and Senator McCarthy's "Unamerican" hearings. In public schools, students are invited to place anonymous calls and rat on other students, while teachers and counselors are encouraged to report "anti-social" tendencies to the police. At work, employers require workers to report on other workers, hire detectives to spy on workers and question neighbors on workers' private lives. Neighbors are asked to call the police if they suspect someone's child is crying too much. Hospital workers are asked to inform the police about the drug habits of patients. The IRS wants to know what you think of your neighbor's new Lexus, etc.
The media endorses the snitching culture with reality television shows in which participants assess one another for the camera, or shows like the Jerry Springer Show, in which guests are publicly humiliated by revelations from relatives and old lovers. Crime shows invite the public to report suspects they might know, and stories about relatives or spouses ratting on each other to law enforcement agencies are given prominent and sympathetic coverage in the news.
Snitches and informants are usually associated with authoritarian, and often totalitarian, regimes. The infamous Stasi police in East Germany has won notoriety for their extensive snitch files. Other brutal regimes invest in large secret police forces that specialize in recruiting and handling informants. The regimes of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel all rely extensively on such methods.
The official explanation is always that informants are needed to foresee and prevent security threats or violence. The justification for TIPS is no different. But there is another aspect of snitching that is equally important to the rulers, an aspect that George Orwell explored in depth in his acclaimed novel, 1984.
Snitching creates a culture of paranoia. It isolates people, breaks down social solidarity, and prevents exchange of information between members of society. Everyone becomes obsessed with watching their own back. Nobody is a friend. Nobody can be trusted.
Snitching creates a culture in which every encounter between two citizens is mediated by authority: Big Brother is always in the room with you. And even if it isn't, you have to behave as if it is. The ubiquity of authority is the essence of totalitarianism.
Many people, after reading the official Citizen Corps web page, will say that TIPS is really no big deal. After all, what can be so wrong about citizens notifying the government about what looks to them as terrorist related activity?
A lot, actually. People don't know what terror activity looks like. To the casual eye, preparing for a terror attack can look like just about anything. Professional terrorists don't look like professional terrorists. They look like me and you. Informants will report instead on whatever fits their prejudices - odd haircuts, books in Arabic, posters of Che Guevara, disparaging comments about the intelligence of the President, etc. Some of them will invent stories to harm people because they hold a grudge against them. Others will use their imagination to make themselves loved by their handlers.
TIPS will create new governmental files on citizens, useful for harassment and abuse, and not much else. It will increase the paranoia and suspiciousness of American society, driving it one step closer to George Orwell's dystopia. That is a high price to pay for pretending to increase our safety. It is a suicidal response to the terrorist suicide attack on September 11.
If TIPS doesn't seem outrageous, it is because Americans have already accepted a significant degree of totalitarianism and the decline of civil society that is totalitarianism's essential counterpart. The breakdown of sociability and the "crisis of trust" is one of the few things the left and the right in America agree upon**. The culture of snitching is both a symptom and a precipitant of this crisis.
During the last election campaign George W. Bush told us he found Jesus. If TIPS is any evidence, perhaps he found Judas, and, being under the influence, mistook him for Jesus.
(Rats disclaimer: the last sentence, and all other explicit and implied criticism of the government of the United States, were made in jest only. The author is actually a great admirer and fervent supporter of our great president and most pious leader, George W. Bush, hammer of terrorists and slayer of evil states. God bless him.)
* On July 16, 2002, after information on TIPS began attracting media attention, the content of the page changed. In particular, information relevant to calculating the size of TIPS was excised. This column as well as Goldstein's refer therefore to information that is no longer public. The old page will remain viewable for a while in the google cache.
** see Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and Francis Fukuyama's Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.
About the Author
Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an unabashed "opssimist." He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword - and sometimes not. Gabriel lives in the United States.