America's Most Frightening

A colleague of mine at In These Times, Dave Lindorff, broke a remarkable story Monday on

Dave did something more reporters should do more often in our media culture: Ask an impertinent question, and then try to find the answer. Dave's question was, "How does Operation TIPS -- John Ashcroft's proposed-but-already-running program to have citizens spy on citizens en masse -- actually work?" In case you missed it -- and you shouldn't, because Dave goes into unforgettable detail -- his answer can be summarized in one sentence.

Up until Dave broke his story, the FBI was handling citizen tips by directing participants to give their information to "America's Most Wanted."

"America's Most Wanted," for folks living in a TV-free cave, is the long-running Fox TV program that, much like Ashcroft's vision, uses viewer tips to catch crooks. Host John Walsh comes off like a bad parody of John Wayne: Between segments, legs firmly planted and arms akimbo, he almost always exhorts viewers to "catch bad guys" or "put that bastard away." It's tabloid television at its worst, and it has lots of fans. It even, occasionally, helps in the capture of featured wanted criminals, although the ratio of viewer tips to useful viewer tips is probably about a trillion to one. Any good the program does is far outweighed by the paranoid worldview it promotes, of a world in which murderers and rapists run amok, terrorizing God-fearing Americans who are, in turn, protected only by their guns, the cops, and, of course, regular TV viewing.

Is this John Ashcroft's vision for America?

Dave's story is pretty funny. It's also terrifying, because these people are serious. They believe their own hype, and they have a powerful (and unchallenged) soapbox from which to promote it. And the scariest part of Lindorff's piece is a stretch, but worth quoting; he notes that turning over TIPS tips to Fox TV "...could be a novel way of getting around congressional reservations and restrictions. [Dick] Armey's measure [a House bill that would kill Operation TIPS], for example, would bar only 'the government' from running any program having citizens spying on citizens -- but it might not apply to a Fox-run effort."

There's a word for that, "vigilante." And if John Ashcroft is seriously thinking of having tens of millions of patriotic Americans, with the Bush Administration's blessing, participate in a well-organized, for profit (that's what TV programs are for, after all) effort to "root out terrorists," the implications for abuse are indescribable. The only possible bright side is that such abuses are not likely to be carried out in secret, in the dark of night -- they're likely to be broadcast in prime time. Big Brother, in this vision, would not be the one to come knocking at your door. It'll be your local SWAT team, followed by John Walsh, armed with a tip from the neighbor who doesn't like your rider mower, and followed by a six-person TV crew with weapons drawn.

What has happened to civil liberties in this country (and, for that matter, in almost every Western democracy) in the year since September 11 is truly frightening. For non-citizens especially, but also any other immigrants, Muslims, or people who might look like they or their ancestors hail from the Islamic world, the United States has passed the threshold of becoming a police state: unchecked police power; indefinite detention without trial, legal counsel, or access to evidence; the possibility at any time of being literally snatched off the street and deported -- even if it's to a country you've never seen; and on, and on. Massive numbers of citizen spies only add to the horror.

But this is a step beyond; government cooperation with a for-profit agency in a massive, completely unaccountable effort to spy on Americans, with the information gathered going God only knows where for God only knows what purposes. That agency is Fox TV, and any person who has bemoaned the state of TV news knows that Fox is not broadcasting "America's Most Wanted" as a news program, nor as a public service, nor even as an ideological statement of Rupert Murdoch's admiration for police and the FBI. (Although that happens to be boundless.)

Fox is in this gig to make money, lots of it, by first attracting viewers and then selling time with those viewers to its advertisers. The actual programming (interesting word, no?), in this case a show in which citizens will now rat on other citizens for John Ashcroft's amusement, is simply fill-time between the ads. If more viewers are attracted -- viewers that then see the ads -- all the better. Fox could not care less about the actual content and its societal or political impact, let alone its impact on actual human beings. "Monday Night At The Executions" would probably have become a hit series years ago, if only networks like Fox could find a prison willing to let them broadcast capital punishment.

The new fall TV season is coming soon, and some of the announced series are sure to fail. With Ashcroft on the loose, I don't think I even want to know what the mid-season replacements might be.

But there's an election coming up in November, too, and because it's in an off-year for the presidential race, it's generally known as a "mid-term" election. And I for damn sure want some mid-term replacements. Any "public servant" who would try to enact an infotainment police state needs to be cancelled. Pronto. This has gotten out of hand. It's time to mount a serious, broad-based campaign to dump John Ashcroft.


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