Thud. The sound of a very bad idea. Rejected by the Congress, but revamped for launch this September, the really scary "idea" was Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System). Attorney General John Ashcroft wanted to mobilize a million Americans to report "suspicious activity, anomalies, things that are different."
The TIPS program originally sought to encourage truck drivers, train conductors, meter maids, utility employees and others to "directly participate in homeland security" by using an 800 number to report "suspicious activity" to the FBI and other agencies.
Ashcroft denied that the intent of TIPS was to encourage spying on one another, suggesting the government only wanted to urge well-placed citizens to "be alert" and share information. Neat distinction, but hardly one that George Orwell would recognize.
As if we didn't have enough incompetent covert operatives in the FBI and CIA, average Americans could now become the Maxwell Smart on our block or Emma Peel (The Avengers) defending the homeland or 007 - sans the gadgets, paychecks and perks.
In retrospect, the whole notion would have been truly hilarious if the President and the Justice Department weren't actually serious.
When TIPS was first proposed, I immediately wondered just how "suspicious" some of my activities might be to Peninsula workers, neighbors, or acquaintances. Maybe I should clean up the house and stash some stuff - just in case.
For instance, what might Mr. Cable Man think if he saw my copies of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat, Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Orwell's 1984?
Would my book about the "bearded one" arouse his suspicion? Would my copy of Claudia Rodan's New Book of Middle Eastern Food - featuring a spectacular recipe for Uskumra Dolmasu (stuffed mackerel) - pique his curiosity and "give me away?"
What about household items like my Persian rug and my Rocky and Bullwinkle T-shirt, showing Boris Badenov holding some TNT? Would those bags of potentially lethal fertilizer arouse suspicion?
I'd definitely want to relocate my Cat Stevens albums. Cat Stevens was a popular 70s singer who abandoned his singing career, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and became a rabid supporter of Islam.
I'd probably stop mentioning that, years ago, I taught in San Raphael, Calif., home of the notorious John Walker Lindh. Alas, I'd have to suppress fond memories of wonderful Portland Community College students who are from the Middle East.
One of them - from Iraq - gave me some real Iraqi currency - a 25-dinars bill issued by the Central Bank of Iraq and featuring a grinning Saddam Hussein. Better not kid around anymore with that piece of paper. Sometimes I'd offer to pay a meal check or bill with it, hoping to amuse friendly cashiers. But with TIPS in place, I might be mistaken for a supporter of the bearded one.
Although the TIPS program has been modified, the idea that Bush and Ashcroft would even consider mobilizing a million citizen spies is still scary.
I don't mean to indict our nice working class or to suspect the friendly UPS lady or folks who fix my faucets. They're fine, intelligent folks just like you and me.
While the threat of terrorist activities on the Peninsula is minimal, I do have friends and relatives living in larger, more populated areas where the impact of TIPS might have been frightening. Some of them would have considered fixing their own running toilets, leaking refrigerators, fuzzy cable reception, or buzzing light fixtures.
Of course, we all need to be vigilant. But nowhere is it dictated that we must be stupid - or paranoid. History demonstrates that time and time again, fine, intelligent folks can become transformed creatures - when endowed with loosely defined state powers. (I don't even want to contemplate all those, not-so-fine, not-so-intelligent busybodies out there.)
Remember that terrorists usually perform their dastardly deeds in private, not in the "public places" or "public areas" where TIPS informants would be encouraged to spy. The TIPS website claims, "These workers will use their common sense and knowledge of the work environment to identify suspicious or unusual activity."
Granted, many of my sometimes-strange behaviors might be classified as "suspicious" or "unusual." But that doesn't make me a terrorist.
The TIPS idea strikes me as another example of "E pluribus stupiditas" - collective dumbness - which kicks in when groups of smart people, working together, achieve heights of almost unbelievable folly. It's unsettling that such feeble, dangerous ideas to protect us from terrorists could even be proposed - much less taken seriously.
Observer correspondent Robert Brake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org