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Austin Cline

Homeland Security Hunting for “Islamics”

By July 1, 2004

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The American government is once again working to get American citizens to spy and report on each other. The latest program involves getting truck drivers to keep an eye out for suspicious activity on America’s roads and highways. Dubbed “Highway Watch,” it will eventually include tollbooth workers, rest-stop employees, and construction crews for an army of 400,000 informants.

Time reports:

So how exactly does one spot a terrorist on the highway? Members of Highway Watch are given a secret toll-free number to report any suspicious behavior — people taking pictures of bridges, for example, or passengers handling heavy backpacks with unusual care. "We want to hear from you when something just doesn't look right," Beatty said. "Say you're out at a truck stop and you see someone hanging out near your truck, wearing a jacket. Maybe it's too hot out for a jacket. Go back inside, alert someone and check him out through the window."
After the session in Little Rock, two newly initiated Highway Watch members sat down for the catered barbecue lunch. The truckers, who haul hazardous material across 48 states, explained how easy it is to spot "Islamics" on the road: just look for their turbans. Quite a few of them are truck drivers, says William Westfall of Van Buren, Ark. "I'll be honest. They know they're not welcome at truck stops. There's still a lot of animosity toward Islamics." Eddie Dean of Fort Smith, Ark., also has little doubt about his ability to identify Muslims: "You can tell where they're from. You can hear their accents. They're not real clean people."
The Highway Watch website boasts that the program is open to "an elite core [sic] of truck drivers" who must have clean driving and employment records. In fact, their records are not vetted by the American Trucking Associations. At the Little Rock event, some came in off the street without preregistering. However, the organization is highly security conscious about other parts of its operations. It refuses to disclose the exact location of its hotline call center or the number of operators working there. "It could be infiltrated," says Dawn Apple, Highway Watch's director of training and recruitment.

Oh, I feel so much better knowing that people like this are out on the roads, keeping a watchful eye out for suspicious looking Islamics and other “unclean” people who might try to infiltrate law enforcement call centers or carry heavy backpacks. There are real dangers, what with their accents being too heavy for the average American to understand and their turbans so big that they might be hiding WMDs in there.

Unfogged comments:

[T]he major problem with making people informants is that it destroys even the presumption of a bond between citizens, and blurs the line between private citizens and agents of the state. I'm not so worried that certain "initiated" people will file stupid reports, but that everyone else will wonder who has been initiated. This is freedom of association undermined by suspicion, and the effect is to lessen the vigor of any potential opposition to the state.

What will our valiant army of informants be watching for next, politically inappropriate bumper stickers?

Instead of the name “Highway Watch,” why don’t we simply cut to the chase and call this army of informants the Stasi and get it over with?

The Stasi used a huge network of informants to repress the citizens of East Germany. It was not uncommon for members of families to spy on each other for fear of blackmail, as a result of physical threats and even because of monetary rewards from the secret police force. In the late ‘80s, the Stasi had nearly 175,000 official informants on their books, roughly one informant for every 100 people. (Some estimate the size of the “unofficial” Stasi informant force as nearly 10 times this level.) The Stasi maintained a force of over 90,000 uniformed and plain-clothes agents.

Is your neighbor watching you? Would you even know if they were?

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