(I promised, on reading SHG’s 231 Years and Still Trying, to write about the nature of freedom, the power of fear, and the abandonment of American Ideals. This is the first post in the series, though it covers the third topic.)
When I was growing up, my dad worked for the CIA. I was curious about the Cold War, and learned at a young age what it was that distinguished the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union from America. It wasn’t the doomed economic system or the invasion of Afghanistan. It was, rather, the Soviet government’s intrusion into the lives of its citizens.
This intrusion made the Soviet people less free than us; it was epitomized by the government’s use of citizens as informants against each other. I remember it clearly: in the Soviet Union, you would never know who might be an informant. Neighbors would inform on neighbors, friends on friends, and children on parents.
In America, on the other hand, we were taught as children not to tattle on each other. Being a tattletale was wrong. Snitching was downright UnAmerican. Nathan Hale was venerated and Benedict Arnold vilified.
For a while.
Then, somehow, the government convinced us that we were in danger, that it could protect us, and that it was a good idea for people to inform on each other. Sentencing in federal criminal cases was tweaked and retweaked so that most people accused of federal crimes (and most of their lawyers) would choose to provide “substantial assistance” snitching to the government in exchange for the mere possibility of a reduced sentence.
State prosecutors and law enforcement agencies followed suit, paying citizen-informants to make cases against other people. We became a nation of informants — just like the “evil empire” that dad spent his career fighting. Abuses were occasionally highly-publicized, as in the Dallas sheetrock cocaine scandal, but nobody can seriously argue that, where crooks are offered money and freedom (not to mention drugs and sex) for information leading to arrests and convictions, the crooks won’t sucker the government with bad information.
There was, understandably, a backlash: the Stop Sntiching campaign (Wikipedia)1. The movement marked a return to American values of a generation ago.
Here is a post from Scott Henson (Grits for Breakfast) about Dallas DA (and former defender) Craig Watkins’s efforts to get people to keep snitching. He and his gang prosecutor went on hiphop radio promising to protect people who help. “If we prove to this new generation that we are here to support them to help them were on their side hopefully we can change that mentality and get them on board with law enforcement,” Watkins said.
So, to sum up: American values develop over 200 years. Government sells fear to the populace, convinces them that their values are no longer vald. New generation doesn’t buy the government’s spiel, adopts values of an earlier generation. Government, to get them snitching, tries to sell them same old story: “we’re from the government, and we’re here to help.”
Did I get that about right?
1 Even before the Stop Snitching campaign we were selling No Snitches t-shirts.