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An American Stasi

It's like they aren't even trying to pretend anymore.

Sure, even since the launching of the War on Terrorism, lip service has been paid to American traditions of civil liberties and freedom. Of course, sometimes that lip service to freedom is spookily Orwellian, such as dubbing President Bush's plan to have every American devote two years of their lives in service to the state the "Freedom Corps." (Even more disturbingly, this scheme encourages people to create a "record of service" documenting what they've done for the state in a "private journal" maintained on the government's Freedom Corps Web site.)

Making news this week is the latest wrinkle in George Bush's Citizen Corps -- a program known as the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or Operation TIPS. (Our allegedly civilian homeland is becoming lousy with new "corps" these days.) The East Germans had a more stylish and nakedly sinister name for the same idea: the formerly feared, and apparently now fondly missed, Stasi.

TIPS in essence deputizes 1 million Americans in 10 cities as government informants. (That's just the beginning for its August debut -- the program will be expanded next year.) The announcement names "American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others" as potential members of this proud army of snoops and busybodies. A Washington Times story on the program points out that a common denominator for at least a couple of those categories is that their "jobs allow them access to private homes."

These TIPS soldiers have been given the mission to go where the police can't necessarily go, see what the police can't necessarily see, and then report findings to the Justice Department, which will maintain a database of tips. It remains to be seen whether this will save the country from attack, or simply bury bureaucrats in thousands of vague, frightened, meaningless reports that sully the reputations of the innocent. But we have already seen the effects of creating a system of omnipresent government informants who treat all fellow citizens as potential enemies. It used to be called "living behind the Iron Curtain."

Many Americans seem to have forgotten the days (less than a decade ago) when you didn't need to show a government-issued identification to travel by air. It seems likely that with more programs like Operation TIPS in effect, the very spirit of a free people that should be viscerally disgusted by such programs will be reduced to a half-remembered ghost. The banner in the eagle's mouth on the back of the Great Seal of the United States might as well change from reading "E Pluribus Unum" to "The innocent have nothing to fear."

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