No TIPS accepted
By DUKE O. ERLE
Writing about TIPS (Terrorism Information and Protection System) on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (August 14), James Taranto attempts to assure us that we have no need to worry about creeping totalitarianism. His assurance is not reassuring.
In my youth, the catch phrase was "creeping socialism." You don't hear that much anymore because the socialists pretty much own the place now. Those who feel "underserved" in terms of gubmint health care, education, and welfare benefits are free to disagree.
Taranto says, in effect, that totalitarianism is never creeping but always crashes in through revolution or some dramatic historical event. Even Germany, under the democratically elected Adolf Hitler, didn't turn totalitarian until after the Reichstag Fire, when Mr. Hitler decided to take his country in a different direction. I don't hold that the current situation in America is analogous to the early days of the Third Reich, but I shudder to think that some day historians may look back on 9/11/01 as a series of events that fully enabled the totalitarian mindset.
The question that has dogged non-anarchists in this country since the days of the Founders is, How much liberty should we trade for how much security? The need for an answer has never been more keenly felt in peacetime than now (and forgive me, but according to my copy of the Constitution, this is peacetime). The hysteria of the Palmer Raids, McCarthy Hearings, and Days of Rage, after testing the limits of the regime's repressive moxie, faded quickly and perhaps because they all involved some variety of Commie-bashing took on an ineradicable bad odor with the Establishment. We may not be so lucky this time.
TIPS is a program of the Citizen Corps, which also administers the Neighborhood Crime Watch. Kinda puts one in mind of Fidel's block wardens and the ever-polite (and ever-ubiquitous) East German Stasi. The TIPS program, which the government describes as "under development," is being scrutinized by the U.S. Congress and seems to be evolving. The original idea was to set up a hot line where anyone could rat on his neighbor for unusual or suspicious activity. That was deemed unwieldy, so the informers were restricted to postal workers, utility workers, and others who have access to potential suspects' homes. Does the gentleman in 666-B who called to have his cable service enhanced really have a portrait of Osama Bin Laden on his living-room wall? Could that alarm clock and pile of wire on the worktable be the stuff that makes bombs work?
But the latest thinking (the latest we know about, anyway) is that this is not the way to go, either. Now, under heavy criticism, the administrators of TIPS have pulled back from private property to rely on truck drivers, bus drivers, cab drivers, and others in the transportation system to call in suspicious goings-on.
You can check out TIPS on the Net at http://www.citizencorps.gov. Congress excluded the Citizen Corps from the Homeland Security Act, but it's still very much alive, under the auspices of the Department of Justice. In addition to Crime Watch and TIPS, the Corps oversees several other up-and-running watches, including Highway Watch, Coast Watch, and the currently hot Amber Watch. The TIPS hot line is to be funded at the level of $800,000 through a Department of Justice grant to a non-profit operator known as NW3C (National White Collar Crime Center). NW3C anticipates the call volume will be 12-15 per month per every 1,000 workers in the participating industry groups. After 9/11, NW3C was selected by AG John Ashcroft to process tips made to the FBI regarding the terrorist attacks. Some 200,000 such tips have been received.
Among those who are oblivious to all that, you know, liberty stuff, the TIPS program may seem to make some sense because, for most of us, America has become unknowable. Maybe all we need is Yet Another Government Program something along the lines of TIPS, which would certainly have the effect of encouraging us, humanely and compassionately, to get to know one another better.
Now, one might argue that in many ways America is already more knowable than ever. Television and the mass media have standardized our language, food, and much of the material aspects of our life. Restaurant, hotel, media, and merchandising chains have conferred a sameness across the land. An unobservant traveler might have difficulty distinguishing Miami from Phoenix if all he focused on was the predictable uniformity of Consumer Prahdux, the latest Cool Youth Lingo, and the acclaim for Britney Spears. But examined more thoughtfully, our country these days does look unpredictable ... unintelligible ... unknowable. At least to a certain kind of Old American.
The Old America was dominated by white, male, European Christians who imposed their values on the culture and punished the unorthodox, sometimes, unfortunately enough, by force of law. The Chinatowns and Corktowns in our urban centers were amusing, nonthreatening little enclaves where one might find a good restaurant or friendly bar. Now the clubbiness is gone, and vast sections of our major cities are populated by people for whom English is obviously not a first, if any, language. The signage in these aliens' commercial districts shouts that English is not needed and not relevant.
Old Americans (Reformed) have learned to withhold their judgment and mind their own business, or at least try to mind it insofar as it's still legal to do so. In the American Civic Religion (Reformed), everyone is allowed to practice his faith and peculiar life style as long as it doesn't get in someone else's face and maybe even if it does, so long as that smacked-into face belongs to an Old American (Reformed). If my neighbor wants to sacrifice a goat in his front yard, who am I to say him nay? I should be grateful that, so far, the offering of a hecatomb doesn't usually involve animals a lot higher in the food chain, if you know what I mean.
Because of those very changes that have been imposed on the country, though, even the warmheartedly inquisitive Welcome Wagon of TIPS may fall into difficulty on the knowability front. The trouble is this. If I am to become part of the TIPS program, what unusual activities should I report? Just what is unusual nowadays?
Here's a hypothetical. As I tarry at my customary morning coffee shop, I hear two swarthy men, who appear to be from the Middle East, loudly talking about methods to work around airport security. Do I have an obligation to take notes? Should I attempt to have them rousted before they leave? Should I try to restrain them or follow them to an identifiable location? Would the National Security Police decorate me, or would the Civil Rights Police arrest me?
Even those of us who aren't controversially ethnic (and, you know, that changes according to social context) may find ourselves on thin ice. As an aspiring fiction writer, I have occasionally planned the elements of the perfect Brinks job in my mind. Had I thought out loud or idly discussed it with a friend, would I merit a visit from agents of the state? I'd probably find myself in the same fix as the hapless air passenger who joked to the stewardess that he had a bomb in his right nostril.
The revolution will not be on television. The revolution will have no sense of humor.
So what will it take to tip the scale to the point where the state stops even pretending that its repression preserves liberty and begins to call a spade a spade explicitly repressing liberty in the name of collective security? I can imagine mischief (don't ask) that would be to the WTC what the WTC was to Oklahoma City. Will the next big terrorist show mean the official end of our society as we (still sort of) know it?
Since a real revolution one of peace and freedom is not in the cards, our best hope, in the face of tragedy, is that Americans will develop a new sense of community, characterized by common sense and a desire for self-preservation, that cuts through the bullshit of political correctness and pious non-involvement. A "let's roll" approach to life and death may have problems of its own, but it sounds better to me than a bunch of snitches running to the bureaucrats with dubious observations.
August 23, 2002
© 2002 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.
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