Beware the Midnight Knock
William Norman Grigg – 2002-02-13
Hello and welcome to Review of the News Online. I’m William Norman Grigg,
Senior Editor for The New American magazine – an affiliated publication of The
John Birch Society.
In last week’s State of the Union Address, President Bush correctly stated: “No
people on Earth yearn to be oppressed, or aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the
midnight knock of the secret police.” This observation, ironically, came after the
President described an initiative that increases the likelihood that Americans may
someday face the dreaded “midnight knock.”
“My call tonight is for every American to commit at least two years – 4,000 hours
over the rest of your lifetime – to the service of your neighbors and your nation,”
declared the President. Toward that end, Mr. Bush introduced the new “USA
Freedom Corps” community service initiative, which includes a “homeland
security” element called the “Citizen Corps.”
The central mission of the Citizen Corps, the President explained, is to enhance
homeland security: “[A]s government works to better secure our homeland,
America will continue to depend on the eyes and ears of alert citizens.” Vigilance is
indeed a duty of American citizenship. However, it must be directed not only at
foreign enemies, but also at our own government, which remains a far more
immediate and powerful potential danger to our lives, liberties, and prosperity.
Before examining the specific role of the Citizen Corps, it is worth recalling, yet
again, a pointed warning from Alexander Hamilton.
In Federalist paper number eight, Hamilton observed: “Safety from external danger
is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will,
after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property
incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual
danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and
security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political
rights. To be more safe, they at length are willing to run the risk of being less free.”
The “state of continual danger” referred to by Hamilton allows rulers the great luxury
of directing the attention of their subjects outward; whenever public discontent
escalates over the cost and intrusiveness of government, a foreign threat gives
rulers a means of changing the subject.
The nightmare world of George Orwell’s 1984 memorably illustrates how a state of
perpetual crisis serves the interest of amoral rulers. Subjects of Big Brother’s
despotism were incessantly warned of the threat posed by their foreign enemies,
and their absolute dependence upon the regime to protect them. Criticism of the
regime was denounced and punished as “thoughtcrime,” and the regime’s
semantic engineers labored to reconstruct the language so that it would be
impossible to speak or think in ways that undermined the State’s hold upon its
What has this to do with President Bush’s proposed “Freedom Corps”? A great
deal. The very title of the initiative is an Orwellian coinage suggesting that freedom
can only be achieved as part of a government-regimented program. Similar
subterfuge is at work in the President’s call for Americans to give 4,000 hours in
federally supervised “service” to the “nation.”
The average American taxpayer worked until May 3 last year to earn an amount
sufficient to pay his taxes – but this doesn’t count toward the “national service”
quota required by the President. Most Americans are also involved in volunteer
efforts of some variety, through churches, civic and humanitarian organizations, or
informal neighborhood settings. Many patriotic Americans work as volunteers in
The John Birch Society, which is devoted to “less government, more responsibility,
and – with God’s help – a better world.” And of course, in a free economy – or even
a partially socialized one like our own – everybody engaged in productive work, or
offering worthwhile goods and services, is serving others.
But this type of service to our neighbors and our nation is not what our President
has in mind. Like other collectivists before him, President Bush appears to believe
that unless “service” is mandated by the state, supervised by the state, and
subsidized by the state, it just doesn’t count. The President’s “service” scheme, like
Bill Clinton’s “AmeriCorps” program, is based upon the socialist premise that only
uncompensated, government-administered work counts as “service.”
But the Orwellian dimensions of the President’s “Freedom Corps” initiative go
beyond the deceptive language in which it is presented. The “Citizen Corps”
component of the Bush proposal has the potential to become an institutionalized
surveillance network of the sort seen in Cuba, China, and other totalitarian
According to the White House summary of the proposal, the organization would be
built upon a network of local “Citizen Corps Councils” organized in cooperation
with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. With FEMA’s help
the councils would coordinate medical, law enforcement, and emergency response
efforts to deal with terrorism and other crises. Coordination of this sort is
worthwhile, and it should be undertaken without federal intervention.
The White House also intends to use the Citizen Corps program to nationalize the
Neighborhood Watch Program “to incorporate terrorism prevention into its
mission.” Another feature of the program would be Operation TIPS: Terrorist
Information and Prevention System, which according to the White House “will be a
nationwide mechanism for reporting suspicious activity….” Operation TIPS would
begin with a pilot program in ten cities to enlist postal workers, employees of public
utilities and transportation services as the “eyes and ears” of the Homeland
This certainly seems innocuous enough. Americans should report suspicious
behavior to local police authorities. But the use of citizens as the “eyes and ears” of
a central government has been a feature of Orwellian police states in the Soviet
Union, Nazi Germany, Communist Cuba, and Communist China. Each of those
regimes used networks of civilian informants to keep so-called enemies of the
state under surveillance.
Already there have been incidents in which Americans who criticized President
Bush or various government policies have been questioned by federal agents.
Three such cases were described in the January 8th Christian Science Monitor:
*Agents from the FBI and Secret Service were sent to Houston’s “Car Art Museum”
after a tipster complained that the tiny gallery was involved in “anti-American
activity.” The complaint was provoked by an exhibit entitled “Secret Wars” that
dealt with covert operations and government secrets.
*A.J. Brown, a college student in North Carolina, was questioned in her doorway by
Secret Service agents and a local police officer for more than a half hour. They
were responding to a report that she had displayed “un-American material” in her
dorm room – in this case a poster critical of President Bush’s stance on the death
*San Francisco resident Barry Reingold was also quizzed by two FBI agents on his
front doorstep last October 23rd. The retired 60-year-old was amazed to discover
that they were responding to a report that he had expressed views critical of
President Bush during a workout at a local gym. “Some fellow weightlifters called
Reingold a disloyal American,” reported the Monitor. “One, apparently, called the
According to the paper, “The rise in doorstep inquiries reflects, in part, a new
law-enforcement reality.” It also reflects an increasing tendency on the part of
Americans to equate principled criticism of government policies with disloyalty.
That tendency will almost certainly be encouraged by the President’s “Citizens
Corps” proposal – which might be its entire purpose. If that tendency infects a
sufficiently large portion of our population, the “midnight knock” from the secret
police may become a grim new “law enforcement reality” as well.
Thank you for listening. Please join us again next week.
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