Friday, July 02, 2004

Big Brother Trucker

Time magazine has a disturbing report on the "Highway Watch" program designed to put 400,000 truckers and the like on the lookout for terrorists:
Highway Watch, which will receive an additional $22 million next year, preserves the part of TIPS concerned with monitoring behavior in public space. The Department of Homeland Security has also launched Port Watch, River Watch and Transit Watch. Then there are the familiar Neighborhood Watch groups, many of which have expanded their missions to include homeland security. In New York City, government outsourcing of surveillance has even trickled down to doormen and building superintendents, thousands of whom are being trained to watch out for strange trucks parked near buildings and tenants who move in without furniture.

After the session in Little Rock, two newly initiated Highway Watch members sat down for the catered barbecue lunch. The truckers, who haul hazardous material across 48 states, explained how easy it is to spot "Islamics" on the road: just look for their turbans. Quite a few of them are truck drivers, says William Westfall of Van Buren, Ark. "I'll be honest. They know they're not welcome at truck stops. There's still a lot of animosity toward Islamics." Eddie Dean of Fort Smith, Ark., also has little doubt about his ability to identify Muslims: "You can tell where they're from. You can hear their accents. They're not real clean people."

Um, yes, Ann Coulter would agree on the cleanliness thing. Except there are also a few other teeny little problems:

-- "Islamic" terrorists planning an attack are extremely unlikely to make themselves stand out or otherwise draw attention to announce their presence by wearing something like a turban.

-- In much of the country, as the story goes on to explain, many of those turban-wearing truck drivers are Sikhs, not Muslims.

-- Tim McVeigh did not wear a turban.

This whole passage makes clear that the purpose of the program is not to do anything serious about terrorism: It's to enable these truck drivers in harassing "non-American" minorities.

In the end, it is not significantly different than government law-enforcement actions that encouraged citizens to "crack down" on their neighboring Japanese Americans on the Pacific Coast during World War II.

The story explains further:
That kind of prejudice is hard to undo, but it's a shame Beatty's slide show did not mention that in the U.S., it's almost always Sikhs who wear turbans, not Muslims. Last year a Sikh truck driver who was wearing a turban was shot twice while standing near his tractor trailer in Phoenix, Ariz. He survived the attack, which police are investigating as a hate crime.

Worst of all is the reality that Highway Watch's program is amateurish -- a kind of secret-decoder-ring approach to security at best, and an official sanction of vigilantism at worst.
The Highway Watch website boasts that the program is open to "an elite core [sic] of truck drivers" who must have clean driving and employment records. In fact, their records are not vetted by the American Trucking Associations. At the Little Rock event, some came in off the street without preregistering. However, the organization is highly security conscious about other parts of its operations. It refuses to disclose the exact location of its hotline call center or the number of operators working there. "It could be infiltrated," says Dawn Apple, Highway Watch's director of training and recruitment.

What's clear is that Highway Watch is a morale booster for drivers. "I don't want to sound too hokey, but truck drivers are a very patriotic bunch," says Mike Russell, a spokesman for the organization. "It made sense for us to take advantage of what we do every day -- which is, basically, patrol major highways through a windshield."

Somehow, I'm less than comforted.

Here, BTW, is the Highway ISAC Web site.

[Via BoingBoing and Tom Paine.]

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