Operation This Is Pretty Stupid
The last week has been an amazing sight: two decades' worth of accumulated public distrust of government -- and nearly a year's worth of governmental power grabs -- finally running headlong into each other. Guess what? The government is going to lose.
The victim, in this case, will be the Terrorism Information and Prevention SystemOperation TIPS, the Bush Administration's ill-conceived effort to encourage everyone to spy on everyone.
From the moment it was announced a week ago Monday, the White House proposal to spend millions of tax dollars encouraging, processing, and acting on the information provided by people whose jobs and lives take them to other peoples' homes has seen some swift backpedalling. It's also been falling apart. The U.S. Postal Service almost immediately announced that it wouldn't allow its carriers to participate on the job. Private carriers, utilities who employ home inspectors and meter readers, and a flood of other agencies and businesses who send their workers out into the field followed suit.
They balked for obvious reasons. Meter readers or building permit inspectors have a difficult enough time convincing wary members of the public to let them onto private property or in the doorlet alone cooperate with whatever task is at handwithout having to fear that the next customer is a prospective terrorist who might open fire if he feels that his cover will be blown. And forget the James Bond stuffthere's a one in a zillion chance of such encounters, but a far, far higher chance that some drug dealer, mentally-unstable paranoid, or other person fearful of daylight will have a heightened sense of fear of such intrusions. Fear, in our heavily-armed society, doesn't just make these folks' jobs tougherit can also lead to aggression and, um, high employee mortality rates.
Beyond the commonsense recoiling of folks who work with and among the public, and their employers, a great big swath of the public itself was also outraged by Operation TIPS. From staunch conservatives like House power Tom DeLay (who is bucking his own party's president by introducing legislation to kill TIPS) to the ACLU and like-minded liberals, an awful lot of folks saw in Operation TIPS an invasion of privacy that carries an unpleasant reminder of Nazi snitching: turn your parents in to the authoritiesthey might be a threat to the Fatherland, er, Homeland. And then they're somehow never seen again.
With John Ashcroft declaring that U.S. citizens (as well as "aliens") need not even be charged with a crime to be held indefinitely, fear of such state- sponsored malice lies just under the surface of many folks' discomfort, fear, or anger about the Bush proposal. But the real kicker is the knowledge of how human nature, in law enforcement and in the rest of the world, works. What if an angry neighbor who doesn't like where you parked your car on the street decides to turn you in? Or the guy down the street who seems to be talking to thin air whenever you see him? Are you confident that once the bureaucracy gets your name into its maw, it will let go, even if that tip is demonstrably preposterous? Don't count on it. Most people don't.
There's also the unpleasant and uncomfortable matter of real treachery, real bigotry. Listen to one Richard Rucireto, a Brooklyn FedEx driver quoted in a New York Times article on his willingness to turn in anyone who looks Muslim or Arab: "Whenever I would go to a place where there was a lot of them [Muslims], I would tell the landlord, hey, you got nine people living up there or whatever, and they would call the FBI and get them checked out."
Given the number of non-citizens in the last year who have been disappeared into INS dungeons without ever being charged with a crime, the last thing any non- police-state-loving country needs is more Ruciretos stoking the Gulag furnace. Rucireto is hardly alone in his sentiments.
Beyond that, most Americans already have the common sense to let someone know if they see some guy ordering boxcutters in bulk or lugging around an assembly manual for suitcase nukes. The mechanisms for processing and investigating such tips already exist. What the White House was after, and what they surely thought would be a simple and uncontroversial program, was something different: an extension to the War on Terror of the snitch principle that already governs much of America's justice system.
The War on Drugs hasn't gotten two million people into jail because of vigilant police; more often, it's been a daisy chain of people offered reduced sentences through guilty pleas and (real or invented) testimony against other people, who then name others, and so on. A climate of harsh sentences and heavy pressure both on defendants (to name names) and on prosecutors (to get good conviction rates) ensure enormous incentives to make stuff up. This system has helped transform America's courts into the equivalent of what mail-order degrees are to higher education: great conviction rates, but the advertised accomplishments are paper thin. And in this case, they also ruin a lot of lives. Applying such a model to the War on Terror has real and obvious potential for its own brand of terror.
The War on Drugs is increasingly unpopular for a number of reasonsthe pointlessness and inefficacy, for one, and the expansion of government power, for another. The spectre of expanded state power has spooked many people about TIPS. Soon, hopefully, the same sort of accumulated, nagging questions will burst into public consciousness around the War on Terror's efficacy, too. Just as the drug war has spectacularly failed, in only ten months Dubya's War on Terror has done many thingsfrom expanding global military aggression to blowing a gaping hole in the federal budget to blowing an even bigger hole in the Bill of Rightswith absolutely nothing to show for it. Unlike other countries, absolutely nobody in the United States has been charged, let alone convicted, of a terrorism-related crime.
After countless thousands of "detentions," FBI "interviews" of other Muslims, staggering amounts of money, technology, and weaponry devoted not just to investigating 9/11 and al-Qaeda, but (at this point) just about any political or religious organization that loves Allah and hates America, there is nothing to show for it. Nothing, that is, but a whole new crop of people who resent the United States and who one day might be inspired to act on their resentments.
As the anniversary of September 11 approaches, there will be a lot of heat and a lot of flag-waving and memorializing -- but there will also be an opportunity to take stock of what the last year's responses have, and haven't, accomplished. Operation TIPS was just the latest in a breathtakingly multi-pronged Bush Administration effort to use 9/11 to expand the power of American government, and that of the Bush clique itself.
This particular proposal is an obvious enough setup for abuse, incompetence, and waste; as such, it's being soundly rejected by much of the public. With any luck, Americans will increasingly apply the same criteria to the rest of the Dubya jihad.