How Our Government Tricks Us into Being Its Careless Spies

I’ve long been annoyed and increasingly angered by a message from our government on radio, TV and other forms of communication in and around New York City, where I live and work:

“If you see something, say something. If it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.”

The message often ends: “Be careful, be safe.” And it’s attached to a means of communication with the government.

Whatever the informal informer thinks is dangerous is not accompanied by any evidence, of course. So if this careless government spy, let’s say, dislikes somebody in the neighborhood for whatever reason, the agent will turn in him or her.

I’ve been aware of little or no objection to this wide open dimension of government spying from most civil liberties organizations, nor — worse yet, from my perspective — any indignant, spied-upon citizen who doesn’t want to become “a person of interest” to the FBI or any other federal intelligence agency.

But, as usual, one ceaselessly vigilant constitutionalist, John Whitehead, founder of the always constitutionally alert Rutherford Institute, has sounded the national alarm. This Paul Revere of our time reported in one of his regular news commentaries:

“For more than a decade now, the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) has plastered its ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign on the walls of metro stations, on billboards, on coffee cup sleeves, at the Super Bowl, even on television monitors in the Statue of Liberty.

“Now even colleges, universities and even football teams and sporting arenas are lining up for grants to participate in the program” (“Turning Americans into Snitches for the Police State: ‘See Something, Say Something’ and Community Policing,” Whitehead,, Sept. 22).

This is particularly revealing — and, I hope, shocking to some of you — proof of how conditioned the citizenry of this nation has become to living in an authoritarian society once described chillingly by George Orwell in 1984.

But this is not fiction, as John Whitehead puts it plainly.

If this is new to you, then how does it feel to wake up to this: “This DHS slogan is nothing more than the government’s way of indoctrinating ‘we the people’ into the mindset that we’re an extension of the government and, as such, have a patriotic duty to be suspicious of, spy on, and turn in our fellow citizens.”

In all honesty, however, I do have to note that the concept of community policing does make sense if members of the community who want to be safer trust that the police they are working with are law-abiding.

However, as of this writing, there are large community protests on the streets of New York City, Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities around the country against lawless and sometimes brutal police.

Indeed, being planned for this weekend is a march on Washington by citizens from a number of cities to protest out-of-control police.

I expect that if Martin Luther King were still alive, he would speak at that march, too. I was backstage on the platform as he said “I have a dream” at his March on Washington in 1963, covering it for a national radio network.

I cannot imagine what has happened to further tear apart police and community relations since then.

For yet another illustration of a “See Something, Say Something” operation in action, John Whitehead tells us that “when a neighbor repeatedly called the police to report that 5-year-old Phoenix Turnbull was keeping a pet red hen (nickname: Carson Petey) in violation of an Atwater, Minnesota, city ordinance against backyard chickens, the police chief got involved.

“In an effort to appease the complaining neighbor and ‘protect a nearby elementary school from a chicken on the loose,’ the police chief walked onto the Turnbulls’ property, decapitated the hen with a shovel, deposited the severed head on the family’s front stoop, and left a neighborhood child to report the news that ‘the cops killed your chicken!’”

This is a vitally needed government report on terrorism?

Whitehead continues: “At a minimum, the Atwater city council needs to revisit its ban on backyard chickens, especially at a time when increasing numbers of Americans are attempting, for economic or health reasons, to grow or raise their own organic food, and the police chief needs to scale back on his aggression towards our feathered friends.

“But what about the complaining neighbor” who saw something and said something?

What remains most ominous for me is that there will be no March on Washington — or even a collective peep from Americans somewhere — against a government that encourages its citizens to spy on anybody they choose by utterly unconstitutional means.

Will any of the 2016 presidential candidates even mention the “see something, say something” blight on this nation, which was once a model of self-governing liberty for other yearning human beings across the globe?

I hereby urge Rand Paul to include this utter distortion of our values in his campaign to make us Americans again.

Meanwhile, you’d better be very carefully agreeable with your neighbors. Otherwise, one of them could turn you in as something that doesn’t seem right and, most probably, isn’t.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.