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John Whitehead's Commentary

Helping Big Brother: Reporting on Your Neighbors

John Whitehead
Many people associate military patrols, martial law and summary executions with the concept of the police state--something obviously not present in our everyday activities.

However, the basic tools for sustaining a police state are economic controls, restrictions on the use of private property and discouraging political dissent. Above all, control is maintained by punishing disobedient citizens. Since the police cannot be everywhere, neighbors, friends and associates are enlisted to report violations to the police--something we see happening in present-day America.

This is a real concern since our government has a near paranoia about dissenting citizens. "The Administration and campaign of George W. Bush," writes former Congressman Bob Barr (R-Ga.), "is squelching any possible hint of disagreement or protest at every political rally or gathering." For example, people with t-shirts that hint at disagreement are not allowed anywhere near the events or even on the route traveled by the presidential motorcade.

But now things have gone even further, and the Secret Service has become active in ferreting out possible troublemakers. "In the last few months, evidence has been mounting that special agents are showing up at the homes and offices of potential protesters," writes Barr, "casting suspicion upon them in front of bosses, colleagues, family, friends and neighbors. During these visits, the special agents 'interview' the potential protesters to determine if they--or anyone they know--might be planning any political demonstrations." And, "The final question the FBI agents ask is this: Does the interviewee know that withholding information on whether they know anyone else who might be planning a demonstration or 'disruption' is itself a crime?"

The key element is enlisting private citizens to inform on their friends and neighbors. Sadly, there are many who are now getting in the spirit and are all too willing to inform on fellow citizens to the police.

Take retired phone worker Barry Reingold, for example. After criticizing the war in Afghanistan in the locker room of his health club, some fellow members called the FBI. A few days later, Reingold had some unexpected visitors.

Reingold, age 60, heard a knock on his door. "I said, you know, 'Who's there?' And they said, 'It's the FBI,'" said Reingold. The two agents wanted to know more about his locker room outburst. "Someone's reported to us that you've been talking about what happened on 9/11 and terrorism and oil and Afghanistan," Reingold said the agents told him.

Concerning this incident, as CBS reports, "The FBI insists agents do not interview people because of their political views. But since 9/11, the agency says it needs to cast a wider net than ever in its search for information."

Derek Kjar found himself tangled in the net when he said that he did not intend to harm President Bush with anything more than a vote for John Kerry in November. Just to be sure, though, agents from the Secret Service paid Kjar a visit, telling him that his neighbors had alerted them to a potentially threatening bumper sticker on his car.

The sticker, which can be found on a number of websites, features a black-and-white likeness of Bush with a crown tilted slightly on his head. Under the image are the words "KING GEORGE - OFF WITH HIS HEAD"--a reference to the infamous King George of colonial days.

This message, of course, is pure political speech, which is protected by the U.S. Constitution and, thus, would never qualify as a true threat under the law. But Kjar didn't know that. Kjar said the agent he contacted in response to a cryptic message left on his voice mail would not even say why he wanted to talk--only that he wanted to meet Thursday morning.

That's when Kjar began to cry. "I didn't know what was going on," he told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It made me so nervous."

Kjar said two agents visited him at his job at a dry cleaning service, where they asked him if he had any ties to terrorist groups or enjoyed reading historical accounts of assassinations. They also asked Kjar about his friends and family and even wanted to know how he paid his monthly rent.

The agents finally left after Kjar gave them the sticker. Kjar said he feared the agents were going to "take me away."

Since 9/11, it has been consistently drummed into our heads by the government, with all its alerts and alarms, that terrorists are everywhere. This necessarily means that your next door neighbor could be one. The government is using fear to promote its agenda of Orwellian control.

But none of this is really new. The former expatriate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, speaking of the Russian people in the old Soviet Union during the Cold War era, noted that not only would they inform on their neighbors, they would also kneel inside the door of their apartments, pressing their ears to listen when the KGB came at midnight to arrest their neighbor. He says that if all the people would have come out and driven off the secret police, sheer public opinion would have demoralized the effort to subdue a free people. But fear and their own personal security were more important.

Yes, the only way they can succeed is if we cooperate. Will we?

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His most recent books are the best-selling Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the award-winning A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, and a debut dystopian fiction novel, The Erik Blair Diaries. Whitehead can be contacted at Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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