It's been an amazing sight this month: two decades' accumulated public distrust of government and nearly a year's worth of accelerated 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 System, a.k.a. Operation TIPS, the Bush administration's ill-conceived effort to encourage everyone to spy on everyone.
The White House has been backpedaling from the moment it announced this dud. The U.S. Postal Service almost immediately announced that it wouldn't allow its carriers to participate on the job. Private carriers, utilities that employ home inspectors and meter readers, and a flood of other agencies and businesses that were also expected to Snitch for Sam instead followed the post office's lead.
For good reason. Meter readers or inspectors have a hard enough time convincing customers to let them onto private property or in the door. Forget the James Bond stuff; there's a one in a zillion chance of an encounter with prospective terrorists 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 and the firepower to cause problems.
Beyond the commonsense recoiling of folks who work with and among the public and their employers, a great big swath of the public itself has also been repulsed by TIPS. Staunch conservatives and ACLU liberals alike smell patriotism as practiced in prewar Germany: Turn in your parents; they might be a threat to the fatherland, er, homeland. And they're never seen again.
Now that any among us may be imprisoned indefinitely without charges, fear of such state-sponsored malice lies just under the surface of many folks' discomfort with the Dubya proposal. But the real flaw is human nature and how it works. What if the neighbor who hates your parking decides to turn you in? Or the guy down the street who's 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.
There's also the unpleasant matter of real malice, and 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." Or how 'bout the Oregon sheriff who recently called the FBI about Muslims at a local ranch, now preposterously accused by The Seattle Times of being an Al Qaeda "cell": "There were reports of gunfire and of a large group of suspicious, or unusual, people here."
Ahh. People on an Oregon ranch shooting guns—patriots. Brown people shooting guns—call the FBI. Pronto.
Given the number of noncitizens in the last year swept up without ever being charged with a crime, the last thing any of us needs is America's reliable supply of bigots stoking the furnace of Operation the Inevitable Police State.
Most of us already know to call someone when we see a guy ordering box cutters in bulk or lugging a dog-eared copy of Suitcase Nukes Made Easy.
What Bush sought—and surely thought would not be controversial—was something different: an extension to the War on Terrorism of the snitch principle that already governs much of America's justice system.
Convictions based on unreliable witnesses have been at the heart of why the War on Drugs has failed to stop drugs, while leaving 2 million people in Gulag America. We can't afford such a spectacular failure from efforts to stop terrorism, but it's heading there. Not one single person arrested in the U.S. in the near-year since Sept. 11 has been convicted of a terrorism-related charge. Countless thousands of "detentions" and FBI "interviews," staggering amounts of money, technology, and weaponry, and snooping on (at this point) just about anyone who loves Allah, plus stepped-up military aggression around the world has given us nothing at all—except a whole new global crop of people who hate America and might one day act on it.
Operation TIPS was just the latest in a breathtakingly multipronged Bush administration effort to use Sept. 11 and subsequent public fear to permanently expand its own power. This particular proposal is an obvious enough setup for abuse, incompetence, and waste that it's being soundly rejected by much of the public. With any luck, Americans will increasingly be applying the same criteria to the rest of the Dubya jihad.