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At is an article on the “If you see something, say something” campaign, in which there is a short video message encouraging people to speak up if they notice any suspicious activity. This campaign has expanded to Wal-Marts. On the surface, this sounds like a great idea–perhaps the government is aware of threats against public places and wants citizens to be particularly diligent. Janet Napolitano‘s policy, then, could be seen as benevolent. After, it is a voluntary campaign–no one is being forced to turn in their neighbors.

Still, I find the policy troubling because of the long history of “witch hunts” in the United States. During and after World War I, good, patriotic citizens were imprisoned by the government for speaking out against the war. After the war, the government campaign was against the far left, but citizen’s civil rights were routinely violated. Although the “Red Scare” really did locate some Communists in the U. S. government, as is now confirmed by KGB records, it tended at times to run to excess. J. Edgar Hoover encouraged citizens to spy on their neighbors to determine whether they were engaged in any activity suggestive of Communist affiliation. His book on Communism seems to accept the view that “There is a Communist around every corner.” This belief was a recipe for abuse, and Hoover’s FBI did spy on prominent Americans and other citizens he feared as being soft on Communism.

Now we have another plan telling people to be alert for potential terrorists. This is risky; suppose a person has a neighb0r who makes replicas of weapons from the War between the States for reinacters. The person could then claim that his neighor is messing around with explosive material–and federal law enforcement would disturb an innocent man because of his hobby. Or suppose a slightly autistic individual or someone with a similar condition is seen behaving strangely and awkwardly in a store. Someone watching that person might turn him in, believing him to be a threat.

I suppose I’m cynical, but usually when the government encourages people to watch their neighbors, this means that the government wants the American people’s minds to wander away from policy failures by the current administration. These policies are distractions–and I wonder how many real terrorists would be apprehended as the result of the “If you see something, say something” campaign. I doubt that many have been, or even one. American society is already composed of mainly isolated individuals living in their own tiny worlds and who do not interact with many people face to face. Let’s not add paranoia and potential government abuse of power to this mix.