The Abandonment of American Ideals


(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.

So, of course, now the government is trying to protect its ability to get people to put each other in prison. It’s so much easier to control the populace that way.

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?

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1 Even before the Stop Snitching campaign we were selling No Snitches t-shirts.


0 responses to “The Abandonment of American Ideals”

  1. Yup. You got that about right.

    I wonder if kids are still taught about Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold. I wonder if it matters, considering the rest of society is busily justifying its “me first” attitude.

    Men of honor are no longer honorable. Draconian penalties have done their job, though at a huge expense. And it is definitely so much easier to create crimes, or shoot fish in a barrel, then protect and serve.

    And as our “juries get it wrong” study suggests, it is better that 13 innocent people go to jail then 87 guilty ones go free. Nobody seems to have a real problem with that anymore. Unless, of course, you or your loved one happens to be the sacrificial lamb for the safety of society. Then, suddenly, all your fourth grade civics comes rushing back.

  2. Mark, I’d distinguish, as I think Watkins does, between snitches seeking reduced penalties or payments and witnesses who fear to come forward in violent offenses.

    The Stop Snitching movement was originated by drug dealers on the East Coast who are using the meme in some cases to intimidate non-criminal witnesses. That’s not right and I think it’s also wrong to equate “snitching” with reporting serious crime to police.

    I’m 100% with you, however, on discouraging situations “where crooks are offered money and freedom (not to mention drugs and sex) for information.” We are reaching a level of informant saturation in America seen by no society before us save perhaps the East German Stasi.

    If you haven’t seen Alexandra Natapoff’s article from Slate on the topic, it’s really good. And I’ve written quite a bit on the subject on Grits, too. Best,

  3. Scott, witnesses who are not working off their own crimes are not snitches from the perspective of criminal defense lawyers.

    While anyone who works with the cops may be deemed a snitch on the street, I don’t think that’s what Mark (or I) is talking about.

    We’re talking 5K1.1. We’re talking sell out your brother for the promise of a day less in jail. We’re talking people who get caught, whether shooting heroin or a gun, and then become the cops newest best friend by giving up his old best friend.

    Regardless of what people on the street want to call it, a witness who has done nothing wrong is simply a witness, not a snitch. This an entirely different thing.

  4. I’m totally with you. The moral conundrum comes because thugs are conflating witnesses and snitches – using “stop snitching” as a way to intimidate plain old garden variety witnesses. I realize criminal defense lawyers know the difference, but when most people criticize the “stop snitching” stuff, they’re not talking about what you’re talking about – criminals who flip. They’re talking about the witness who’s told by a murderer that they’ll be killed too if they talk. In Pittsburgh last year a drug gang sent in a cadre of soldiers wearing “stop snitching” and “snitches get stitches” shirts in the audience, successfully intimidating a witness from testifying. And I’m sure you’re aware of the idiot rapper who went on 60 Minutes and said he wouldn’t report a serial killer living next door.

    Snitching or “confidential informant” use needs to be dramatically scaled back and strictly regulated. But we can’t get there, IMO, if we don’t acknowledge that some folks spreading that meme in the hip hop realm simply aren’t on the same page with the criminal defense bar. best,

  5. Snitching being held as honorable is not new to this country. I don’t know when Bennett grew up, but during the cold war and immediately after WW II, Eugene McCarthy rose to fame and power promoting not only the snitch but trials that denied the accused of the right to face their accuser. The US Supreme Court that holds the best civil rights record in recent history even approved the practice.
    Ken Ramsey

  6. To what extent is snitching more prevalent with drug crimes vs violent crime?

    I remember a memorable bench trial I attended like 7 months ago. The defendant, a tiny black man, was accused of shooting a gigantic black man in the buttock. While high on painkillers after getting out of the hospital, the victim calls the cops and, when they get there, identifies the defendant by name and photograph, puts this in writing, but asserts that he will not testify. All of this is recorded at the time on cassette. Case goes to trial, defendant puts on practically no defense despite hiring an actual lawyer, witness denies knowing anything, tape is played, judge laughs them all out of court to the tune of 5-10 or somesuch. I remain utterly baffled at why this man elected to waive his right to a jury trial.

    It’s a wonder that anyone goes to jail in Baltimore, since nobody will talk to the cops [without powerful painkillers at least], and juries won’t convict. The result is cases like this.

  7. […] (I promised, on reading New York criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield’s Independence Day post, 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 third post in the series; it covers the second topic. I discussed the nature of freedom and the abandonment of American ideals.) […]

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