Just yesterday I was informed by a near-relative and former neighbor that the FBI had just paid him a visit.
It seems that the people who moved into my former apartment – folks with a middle-eastern look to them – were being investigated.
It goes something like this: the suspected terrorists (for that is what they now are) moved in and told their neighbors (there are six apartments in a converted farm house) that they’d recently moved from New Jersey. The other day, another one of my former neighbors saw them in the parking lot, changing their (new) New Hampshire license plates for New York state plates. That neighbor has a friend that works for the FBI, and so a telephone call was made in the spirit of “see something, say something”.
Does anyone remember the “Red Scare” of the fifties? I do, vaguely, mostly from fallout during the early 60s. Good ol’ Joe McCarthy had the country running around looking for commies under the bedsheets. My family was directly involved. It seems that there were some suspected “reds” living in Stratford, NJ and, since my mother was a stay-at-home mom, the FBI tapped her to spy on her neighbors.
In later years I asked my mother why she would agree to participate in such an odious thing and she replied that with her doing the watching, no one would get ratted out; her taking the job meant that someone less responsible wouldn’t be doing the reporting.
I guess my mother never figured that the FBI was smart enough to not only have multiple neighborhood spies, but to also set one on her. I’ll just bet that her lack of reporting of suspicious activities resulted in her being labelled a commie-symp in her FBI file.
I’m conflicted and concerned over this.
Concerned because, while this is my first direct experience with the surveillance that those who look middle-eastern or Muslim must be subjected to, Hillsboro is such a small town, in such a small state, that this one single “investigation” suggests that there are hundreds of thousands taking place across the country. And, if we focus for a moment on the experience of those being investigated, this would suggest that there isn’t a single middle-eastern or Muslim family in this country that hasn’t been touched by this.
I don’t know of a single person who wouldn’t be righteously indignant over having their loyalty, patriotism, sanity, citizenship, brought under suspicion because a nosy neighbor connected their looks, or their religion, their accent or their dress with a normally harmless activity and decided to cry wolf.
I also can’t imagine what it must be like to move to a new neighborhood and discover that some, or perhaps even all, of your neighbors hated and feared you so much that they were moved to call the authorities. Knowing that from that moment on your every move was probably being watched; having to second-guess all of your daily actions, lest they be mistaken for “suspicious” activity. Wondering how this will affect your job, or your children at school, forever questioning conversations, wondering if a remark was directed at you.
I’m conflicted because, while I recognize the efficacy of having neighbor spying on neighbor (it worked very well in East Germany: it’s much harder to conceal anything when everyone is watching), I also know my neighbors and fellow citizens.
They’re often mean and petty, self-aggrandizing, would love to play the hero and get their 15 seconds of fame, and about the only real experience they have with surveillance and stringing together clues is the occasional binge watch of Law & Order, or perhaps a game of Clue: “It was Mr. Muhammed in the Mosque Room with the Burnoose.”
Which is to say, not much.
By way of personal example: I was once subjected to police detention and search because a shut-in called 911 to report that “the Russians had landed and were in her backyard”. Actually, it was a paintball game taking place at a commercial paintball facility. Nonetheless, I and the other players were in serious jeopardy of being shot until the situation got straightened out. “Grandma” was strongly urged to stop watching Red Dawn. (Or at least learn her camouflage patterns.)
By way of other personal examples, I have also been personally subject to suspicion on the basis of looks and (former) religious affiliation, not once, but on numerous occasions throughout my 58 years; swastikas chalked on my driveway, police wanting to know “when did you get out of jail?!” (while sitting in my expensive car, wearing a three piece suit, preparing notes in my briefcase, sitting in the driveway in front of my home), pennies rolled at me in school cafeteria, being told that the driver’s license I offered during a traffic stop wasn’t mine, Disney plainclothes security following me all day at Epcot…. The catalog is endless and there is an explanation for all of them – but it hardly matters. I have some small experience of being under suspicion by the authorities for no good reason, and I know how helpless one can feel. As for being stereotyped by people who hate for no good reasons – that’s not fun either. (And I have a baseball bat.)
If you’ve taken one trip through Homeland Security Theater at the airport, you’ve gotten a taste of what it feels like yourself.
On the other hand (if we’re honest, there’s almost always two…hands…), there is the fact that there are those living among us who want to do us harm, and it is true that the right person, seeing the right thing at the right time could contribute to preventing an attack.
As a creative type who has no small amount of intimacy with police and military training, I can assure you that the attacks we have witnessed to date are nowhere nearly as horrific as they might otherwise be. I can easily imagine the mayhem that a properly prepared individual could wreak in a small town like Hillsboro, NH; (I have nightmares that might one day be stories.) And I have to ask myself, if I saw something suspicious, would I call it in?
I don’t think so, and here’s why: I’d feel beholden to my own sense of doing the right thing, which would immediately make me question my own motives: am I suspicious because I’m stereotyping, or because there’s something going on that is genuinely suspicious?
On the other hand, if my white-guy neighbor had a van filled with fuel oil and fertilizer bags sitting in his driveway and had spent all day yesterday ranting and muttering about FBI surveillance…I’d like to think that I would at least ask him where his farm was….
What I do know with certainty is this: fear and suspicion are strong emotions and an open society that wants to remain an open society needs to do better than relying on emotion when it seeks to protect itself. If we’re going to ask the average citizen to keep an eye out, we’ve got to educate that citizen in what to watch out for, and even then, it’s a crapshoot.
It would be far better to educate our public in the fact that an open society will at times pay a price for being open, and we should all well-remember those times in our past when we have given in to fear and have come to regret it. Every. Single. Time.