Beware the Midnight Knock

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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

Security system.

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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© Copyright 2002

The John Birch Society, Inc.


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