Jewish World Review July 22, 2002/ 13 Menachem-Av, 5762
Spy vs. I, even though I just wanted to pick up the mail
Were George Orwell still living, he'd rename his most famous book, 2002.
"Big Brother" is all grown up and is joined today by Big Cable Guy, Big Mail Person and Big Truck Driver.
Spies will be among us soon. Under the federal government's multifaceted anti-terrorism program, one initiative set to go next month includes recruiting 1 million civilian workers who typically have access to private homes to keep a close eye on Americans. Among groups targeted for recruitment are postal workers, truck drivers and utility employees.
It's bad enough I've had to give up flying owing to the excessive wait-and-grope tactics of the airport gestapo. Now I'll have to figure out how to fix the running toilet, the leaking refrigerator, the fuzzy cable reception and my buzzing light fixtures.
I'll also have to forfeit mail-order shopping (sayonara, Martha) and lock the front gate by the mailbox. Of course, I run the risk that my reluctance to be peeped by random Toms will be interpreted as suspicious under new anti-terrorism definitions.
Months ago, civil-liberties organizations began sounding the alarm that our freedoms were being gobbled up. Polls continuously have shown that most Americans were willing to give up a little freedom if it meant not getting scorched by mass-murdering maniacs who-really-love-peace.
Then there was a knock at the door. Metaphor now; reality soon?
The intent of this new program -- called TIPS, for Terrorism Information and Prevention System -- ostensibly is to snare the bad guys before they do us harm. Theoretically, Cable Guy only would call authorities when servicing a house that was home to nine Arab males between the ages of 22 and 45 with pipe bombs in the fridge, copies of the Quran and box cutters on every table, and a portrait of Osama bin Laden over the sofa.
But in reality, giving Cable Guy carte blanche to snoop while he's in your house or mine is a privilege I'm unwilling to grant. Many of us already have experienced via airline travel what happens when you give people sudden power over their fellow citizens. I'm trying to be polite here, but you know what I mean. Sometimes morons happen.
Here's a scenario that helps me stay awake nights: I have books scattered all around my house on Islam, Osama bin Laden, terrorism, Middle East politics and so on. Might such reading material suggest to a high-school dropout with a tech degree that perhaps I might be in cahoots with the bearded one? Maybe not, but maybe yes.
I don't mean to indict America's working class or to insult my postman, our friendly FedEx guy or the nice men who fix my faucets. They're fine, intelligent folks just like you and me. But history has demonstrated time and again that fine, intelligent folks can become altered creatures when endowed with loosely defined state powers.
Which is why those wacky dead white guys created a constitutional system of checks and balances to protect us from our well-meaning, sometimes misguided selves. Yes, we must be vigilant. We may even have to give up some carefully considered rights. But nowhere is it dictated that we must be stupid.
Americans, in fact, are not stupid. A cable installer who witnesses a scene hinting at terrorist activity will call the police. A neighbor who notices unusual activities in the adjacent apartment will call the police. Not because they're government informants, but because they haven't been lobotomized.
The government's new civilian cop force -- with snooping powers that circumvent constitutional protections against unlawful search -- walks, talks and quacks like what it is: a fledgling police state.
Beware the postman who doesn't ring even once.
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