The government seems to delight in peddling paranoia, especially since 9/11. However, with this latest campaign to turn Walmart shoppers into domestic spies, their tactics have taken a sinister turn.
It all started in early 2009 with the release of two reports by the Department of Homeland Security on extremism, rightwing and leftwing, that defined as an extremist anyone who subscribes to a particular political viewpoint–in other words, anyone who has an opinion and disagrees with the Obama administration. For example, the report “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” broadly defines rightwing extremists as individuals and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely.” The message to the American people was clear: be careful what you think and say because if the government disapproves, you’ll become a political enemy.
Indeed, in recent years, average Americans have increasingly been targeted for surveillance by the government. Treated as suspects, we have had our phone calls tapped and our letters and emails monitored by government agents, not to mention being subjected to fingerprint scans at amusement parks, bag searches at train stations, patdowns at stadiums and concert arenas, camera surveillance on street corners and other public places, and, most recently, whole body imaging scanners in airports.
As if being spied on by the government wasn’t bad enough, now the government is asking us to spy on one another. As part of its “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, the DHS is partnering with Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, and other corporate entities to urge Americans to report “suspicious” activity to their local police. The multi-million dollar, multimedia blitz, paid for by taxpayer dollars, includes videos in Walmart stores, as well as posters, billboards and advertisements in airports, public transit, movie theaters, gas stations and on local radio stations.
The first stages of the campaign in airports and transit stations have already been rolled out. Within the coming weeks, more than 600 Walmart stores in 27 states will begin playing video messages at the checkout stations from Secretary Janet Napolitano–or Big Sis, as she is referred to in some circles–aimed at encouraging Americans to “play an active role in ensuring the safety and security of our nation.” Conveniently, nowhere in the short PSA is “suspicious activity” actually defined, leaving it up to average Americans like you and me and your next-door neighbor to determine what kind of behavior should be reported to the government (or Walmart manager). What’s more, if you do get reported by a clerk or neighbor or ex-boyfriend, you’ll be entered into a permanent suspect file, whether or not you’re actually guilty of any wrongdoing.
Whether it’s intentional or not, this kind of program will sow seeds of fear, paranoia and distrust, and in the process, keep us divided and powerless. The one thing those in power fear is unity of the people–“we the people” as the Constitution puts it–because united against the government bureaucracy, holding it in check, we are powerful beyond measure.
Unfortunately, this experiment in domestic spying has been tried before and with devastating consequences. As Dr. Robert Gellately, author of “Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 1933-1944” (Oxford University Press, 2001), discovered about the German people in Nazi Germany, “There were relatively few secret police, and most were just processing the information coming in. I had found a shocking fact. It wasn’t the secret police who were doing this wide-scale surveillance and hiding on every street corner. It was the ordinary German people who were informing on their neighbors.”
Indeed, Gellately found that those acting as the Gestapo’s unsolicited agents and informing on their neighbors were motivated more by greed, jealousy and petty differences than by any sense of patriotic duty. He found “cases of partners in business turning in associates to gain full ownership; jealous boyfriends informing on rival suitors; neighbors betraying entire families who chronically left shared bathrooms unclean or who occupied desirable apartments. And then there were those who informed because for the first time in their lives someone in authority would listen to them and value what they said.”
Rest assured, when and if Americans start turning each other in, the motives will often be no different and the result will be the same: we will be the ones guilty of having erected a police state, one that marches in lockstep with corporate America. Moreover, as a result of the ultimate collusion between the corporate elite and DHS, not only will Americans be persuaded to spy on each other but corporate employees will be pressed to act as the eyes and ears of the government. In fact, the government has even provided stores with training videos for their clerks as to what they should monitor and report about you when you are shopping in their stores.
In addition to Walmart, DHS is partnering with federal, state, local and private sector entities, as well as the Mall of America, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Amtrak, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, sports and general aviation industries and state and local fusion centers across the country.
DHS is also working with the Department of Justice which has been laying the groundwork for its own domestic spying program for years now. Among the state and national agencies working with the DOJ on the government’s Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative are: Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative; Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council; International Association of Chiefs of Police; Major Cities Chiefs Association; Major County Sheriffs’ Association; National Sheriffs’ Association Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, DOJ; The Federal Bureau of Investigation; U.S. Department of Defense; and the Office of the Program Manager, Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE).
The combined power and reach of this bureaucratic list of agencies–from international policing units all the way to the local police–is particularly troublesome, especially in light of the government’s increasing reliance on fusion centers. There are more than 70 fusion centers sprinkled across the country so far, with one common purpose: to spy on American citizens. As the ACLU reports, “Fusion centers are also the focal point for growing suspicious activity reporting programs that encourage public reporting of innocuous everyday activities. The Colorado Information and Analysis Center even produced a fear-mongering public service announcement asking the public to report innocuous behaviors such as photography, note-taking, drawing and collecting money for charity as ‘warning signs’ of terrorism.”
Thus, while these fusion centers were initially established to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among state, local and federal law enforcement agencies, the scope of their mission has dramatically expanded. With individuals from the military and corporate sectors on their payroll, these fusion centers now largely focus on collecting information from government and corporate sources on average Americans like you and me, mining the data and passing the information along to local law enforcement officials, who have become de facto extensions of the Department of Homeland Security.
For those who can read the writing on the wall, the message is clear: we’re living in a corporate police state. The government has taken on the identity of the corporation, which exists to make money and amass power–not protect freedoms. Moreover, once we become an informer society, spying on our fellow citizens and turning them over to government agents at the least suspicion of wrong-doing, no matter how unfounded, we will have relinquished our last claim to being a free people.
So what, if anything, is to be done?
First and foremost, stay alert and informed. Know your rights. You have a First Amendment right to free speech–meaning that you can speak your mind without the government labeling you an extremist. You also have a Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents–meaning that you should not be treated like a suspect and subjected to body scans and patdowns by government agents without there being a reasonable suspicion that you have done something wrong.
Second, stay on the backs of your elected representatives. Pester your national, state and local representatives. Attend city hall meetings and make your voice heard repeatedly. Don’t give up and don’t let anyone else–namely politicians–speak for you.
Finally, while the government may have little regard for our rights as citizens, the corporate state speaks in a language of money and power, and in this regard, “we the consumer” still have some leverage. If the corporate collusion behind this domestic spying program troubles you, and it should, contact your local Walmart store as well their headquarters–and any other business signing onto this dastardly campaign–and make your discontent known. Then, and this is the most important thing, stand your ground.
You have power, so use it. Be what those who founded America wanted us to be–engaged, active, informed. After all, we are the government.
John W. Whithead
(Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.)