Here’s a TIP: Mind your own business | NevadaAppeal.com

Here’s a TIP: Mind your own business

by Sheila Gardner

When I pulled in the driveway Tuesday night at 9:07 p.m., things looked mighty suspicious on Spruce Street.

What were my neighbors doing out in their front yard? Who was that man across the street wandering around with a flashlight? Why was I home three hours earlier than usual? Was that a dog barking?

These are the kinds of questions we only pray can be answered as the Justice Department’s Operation TIPS — Terrorism Information and Prevention System — gets off the ground in August. Millions of Americans will be asked, and possibly trained, to watch for suspicious activity and report it to the government.

Remember Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor on the TV series “Bewitched?” Picture millions of Gladyses calling a special toll-free telephone number if they can’t recognize the car parked in front of your house or your curtains aren’t closed just right.

On second thought, this may be too much for Gladys. She’s grown with the times, progressing from neighborhood kvetch to Neighborhood Watch. Now, she’ll have to have a ID badge, a toll-free telephone number and an Internet password.

What’s next? A secret decoder ring?

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That’s why the government is enlisting truckers, mail carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees and others to pick up where Gladys left off.

Do you dare bring in your garbage can if you’re still in your pajamas? Better clear it with the cable guy.

Of course, those wet blankets at the American Civil Liberties Union are all over this.

“The administration apparently wants to implement a program that will turn local cable or gas or electrical technicians into government-sanctioned Peeping Toms,” said Rachel King, an ACLU legislative counsel.

The ACLU is concerned the volunteers would be searching homes without warrants, that resources would be wasted on a flood of worthless tips and the program would encourage vigilantism and racial profiling.

Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge assured reporters this week, “The last thing we want is Americans spying on Americans. There’s a big difference being vigilant and being a vigilante. We just want people to use their common sense. It is not a government intrusion.”

You’re right, Mr. Ridge. There is a difference between “vigilant” and “vigilante.” It’s the letter “e” for “excessive.”

Operation TIPS is part of President Bush’s Citizen Corps initiative to turn ordinary folks like you and me into semiprofessional snitches.

From Alfred, Maine, to Edmonds, Wash., and points in between, America is ready. Some 70 communities across the United States — places like Hickory, N.C. and Sugar Land, Texas — have set up Citizen Corps councils to “help make their communities safer, stronger, and better prepared for preventing and handling threats of terrorism, crime, and other emergencies and disasters.”

If a terrorist targets Wapakoneta, Ohio, the home of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the good citizens will be ready.

As of July 1, councils of the Citizen Corps have been established in 28 states. Nevada is not among them, but anyone who wants to start a chapter is urged to contact any public official. You can download all kinds of information from the Web site — http://www.citizencorps.gov. — to get started.

The only chapter in the entire state of New York, which bore the brunt of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, is in Kew Gardens, a tiny Queens neighborhood.

There are no chapters in the president’s vacation spot, Crawford, Texas, but his neighbors in Houston, Kingsville, Laredo, Longview, Rockwall, Sugar Land and Temple, Texas, have answered the call.

If you find yourself in Ava, Mo., or Damascus, Md., look up the Citizen Corps council. They’ll probably will invite you in for a cup of coffee as long as you know the secret knock.

That’s what bothers me.

Towns like Ogden Dunes, Ind., and McKenzie Bridge, Ore., sound like the kind of places where newcomers are viewed kindly until the government gives the meter reader an ID badge and toll-free telephone number to report suspicious activity.

Meanwhile, back on Spruce Street:

The neighbors were outside because at 9:07 p.m., it was still 80 degrees outside and our pre-air-conditioned homes are sweltering.

I was home three hours early because of a shift in my work schedule.

The man with the flashlight across the street was putting his garbage can out because Wednesday is trash pickup day in our neighborhood.

Yes, that was a dog barking. Want to make something of it, cable guy?

Sheila Gardner is night desk editor of the Nevada Appeal.