I Snoop

What's the difference between a spy and a snoop? It's not merely semantic. Snoops are objects of derision -- nosy neighbors, Peeping Toms, or perverts. Spies are heroes, or antiheroes at least, as the resilience of James Bond fantasies attest. So when Attorney General John Ashcroft exhorts neighborhood groups to be on the lookout for terrorists in their midst, he's inviting them to see themselves as spies, not the snoops that some will turn out to be.

In March, the attorney general announced that the Neighborhood Watch Program, conceived some 30 years ago to help prevent ordinary street crimes, will be enlisted in the war against terrorism. With the aid of a $1.9 million grant to the National Sheriffs' Association, the number of groups nationwide will be doubled -- to 15,000 from 7,500 -- and ordinary Americans "will be provided with information which will enable them to recognize signs of potential terrorist activity." What sort of signs? "We expect people to be aware of suspicious behavior," a Neighborhood Watch Program spokesperson said.

Do you feel safer yet? There's nothing funny about terrorism, but the administration's responses to it are sometimes blackly humorous. When Ashcroft announced the Justice Department's new antiterrorism mission for the Neighborhood Watch Program, he was introduced by Ed McMahon, who last distinguished himself as the pitchman for sleazy "sweepstakes" sponsored by Publishers Clearing House. Your chances of being protected from terrorists by the Dick Tracy next door, equipped with a government handbook, are probably no greater than your chances of winning the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. But I doubt that's the message Ashcroft intended to send. Instead, he promised that the newly expanded Neighborhood Watch Program "will weave a seamless web of prevention of terrorism that brings together citizens and law enforcement."

To complement this "web" of surveillance by neighborhood snoops, the Justice Department is also establishing a
surveillance program for America's workers. Operation TIPS (the Terrorist Information and Prevention System) will be launched in August 2002. Justice Department descriptions
of TIPS are typically and ominously vague: "It will be [a]
national reporting system that allows [those] workers, whose routines make them well-positioned to recognize unusual events, to report suspicious activities." Which workers does the Justice Department seek to enlist? "American truckers,
letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others." Do you feel safe now knowing that the average utility worker -- in other words, the cable guy -- is watching out for terrorists?

Will Americans embrace this program of ubiquitous
surveillance? The fear and mistrust that it reflects and is sure to reinforce could undermine its credibility: Logic suggests that paranoid people won't trust the veracity of informants any more than they trust informees. But logic has little to do with it. Fear leads people to believe accusations of criminal activity and disbelieve denials of it; informing thus is
becoming the American way. Consider the popularity of statutes requiring people to report "suspicions" of child abuse.

According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, every state and the District of Columbia have laws requiring people such as social workers, health-care providers, and teachers to inform authorities when they suspect or have reason to suspect child abuse or neglect. These laws have been in the news lately, of course, because of the drive to include clergy as mandatory reporters (a majority of states already do). I'm as eager as the next outraged citizen to see the leaders of the Catholic Church held accountable for facilitating abuse (among other hypocrisies). But I'm not anxious to expand our "web" of informants.

What's the use of mandatory reporting? It's possible, of course, that many actual cases of abuse are reported, if not
investigated and addressed, on account of these laws. But it seems equally possible that people who work with children and care about them would respond to evidence of their abuse, whether or not reporting were required by law.

What's the harm of mandatory reporting? There's a fine line between raising consciousness and provoking hysteria about child abuse, especially in a society that has long been preoccupied with it. Reporting laws may encourage frivolous, unfounded, or inappropriate accusations of abuse. They may, for example, lead teachers to turn in 18-year-old boys who are having sex with their 15-year-old girlfriends. Or they may require reporting of accusations that the reporters themselves believe to be false. In any case, we don't require citizens to report suspicions of arson, robbery, or other crimes, at least not yet. Why require people to report mere "suspicions" (rather than knowledge) of child abuse?

It's trite but true that many Americans today regard suspected child abusers and "potential" terrorists the way they regarded communists in the 1950s. So their clandestine presence among us (they may look like you or me) is a predictable incentive for the creation of an informant state. It's not surprising that the attorney general wants to deputize all good Americans -- to marry citizens to law enforcement -- but liberty requires our separation from the state. Civil libertarians police their government, not their neighbors. Community
requires trust -- the belief that your neighbor won't report you to the FBI because he doesn't think you're normal. Renowned sociologist Ed McMahon says that an enhanced network of neighborhood snoops will encourage Americans "to be closer to one another." I suspect it will drive us apart.