In the bad old days when Germany was riven in two parts, Germans in the East lived in terror of the state security ministry known as the Stasi, which enlisted neighbors and colleagues as secret informants. Stasi created a spirit of distrust to be exploited by the party.
Anyone who wants to watch such things in action can book a trip to Palm Beach County, Fla., to see what paranoia looks like. The Department of Homeland Security last year pumped nearly half-a-billion dollars into "urban area security" grants, and the sheriff in Palm Beach, Ric Bradshaw, doesn't want to let his share of such loot go to waste. He has set up a gossip ministry of his own called the Community Partners Against Terrorism.
He envisions radio and television "public service announcements" urging Floridians to "drop a dime" on that creepy guy down the block who mutters about "the system," flies one of those "Don't Tread on Me" flags, and never cleans up after his dog.
"We want people to call us if the guy down the street says he hates the government, hates the mayor, and he's gonna shoot him," Sheriff Bradshaw, not exactly a fearless clone of Wyatt Earp, tells the Palm Beach Post. "What does it hurt to have somebody knock on a door and ask, 'Hey, is everything OK?'"
Apart from the absurdity of it all, it could hurt a lot. Police resources will be diverted to paying visits to malcontents who describe the bad things they would like to see happen to local politicians or even the local sheriff. It's merely ordinary in a free society. Such comments may be in bad taste and offend decorum, but they're not crimes, and they don't warrant a visit from the constabulary.
A video on the sheriff's website encourages townspeople to turn in anyone they see photographing a bridge or carting a large drum marked "hazardous material" out of his home, but even green terrorists rarely label their weapons of mass destruction, even if they recycle. Sheriff Bradshaw insists he would only go after the bad guys on his watch. "We know how to sift through frivolous complaints," he assured the Post.
The Department of Homeland Security is using these local grants to do what the department itself is prohibited from doing. Shortly after 9/11, George W. Bush prepared to create a federal Big Brother hotline called "Operation Tips" that sought to enlist citizens to turn in neighbors for "suspicious" activity. House Republicans added a provision to the law ensuring that the agency could never do it.
It was a dumb idea at the federal level, and it's a dumb idea in Palm Beach County. Trained police professionals are paid to observe people, notice things, investigate and take matters to the district attorney at the appropriate point, and make sure civil liberties are protected. It's not a perfect system, but it's far better than fundamentally transforming the country in the image of the Eastern Bloc.
Sheriff Bradshaw has applied for a $1 million grant from the state to expand a tattletale scheme. Rick Scott, Florida's clear-eyed governor, has a line-item veto that he can use to eliminate nonsense like this, and we hope he does.
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