True story (which wouldn’t be worth telling, were America truly the free country it still claims to be): About a year ago I thought my dishwasher was broken, because I kept finding scummy film on just-washed plates and utensils. Fortunately, before wasting money on fruitless repair bills I realized the problem: not my dishwasher, but the detergent I poured therein. Although it’s legal to sell dish detergent containing phosphate (read: detergent that works) in Connecticut, it’s banned in every bordering state, and I doubt it’s cost-effective for chain grocery stores to stock one type of detergent in their Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island branches, and a different type exclusive to tiny Connecticut.
Thus, last month, I was ecstatic when I discovered old-school phosphate dishwasher powder for sale in a local discount store. I bought a great many boxes, paying cash as I always do since I consider credit cards (and personal debt in general) to be emergency-only tools.
Then I visited the grocery store, which had a sale on various non-perishable foods my household consumes. So, in addition to the items on my regular grocery list, I also bought enough canned or dried goods to last a couple weeks, even if that was all we ate.
That was risky. My telling you about it here is riskier, since the government now considers “a week’s supply of food” to be a possible terrorist warning sign
. And paying cash for things, in lieu of using credit cards and leaving an electronic trail, is ominous according to the same guidelines.
But that’s how I roll. That’s what I do: shop in adherence with a frugal household marketing budget, and keep my pantry well-stocked and my dishes so sparkling-clean, you can literally eat
off of ’em.
In my mother’s generation, those signs indicated “a likely housewife, respectable to the point of boringness.” Today they indicate maverick badassery. A steely-eyed freethinker who plays by her own rules. Spirited! Defiant! Even … dangerous
Or maybe they just indicate a government that’s lost its freaking mind. I lean toward the latter theory, especially after glancing through the FBI’s “‘Communities Against Terrorism’ Suspicious Activity Reporting Flyers.” Publicintelligence.net published a list of links
to the fliers, and explained:
The following collection of 25 flyers produced by the FBI and the Department of Justice are distributed to local businesses in a variety of industries to promote suspicious activity reporting. The flyers are not released publicly, though several have been published in the past by news media and various law enforcement agencies around the country. We have compiled this collection from a number of online sources.
The documents (which I can’t link to individually from the .pdfs on the Public Intelligence site) show a government security apparatus that’s gone far beyond “fear of terrorism” into the “actively paranoid” realm. Here’s some of the “suspicious behaviors” that employees of Internet cafes should watch out for:
“Are overly concerned about privacy, attempts to shield the screen from view of others.”
“Always pay cash”
“evidence of a residential based internet provider (signs on to Comcast, AOL, etc.)”
I’ve never plotted harm against anyone, but I’ve done all of these when I’ve gone online in public places. I’ve also “us[ed] cash for large transactions” in home-improvement stores, and the FBI thinks clerks in such stores should keep an eye out for people who do.
I didn’t have the patience – or the heart – to look through all 25 and count how many of my everyday habits now qualify me for a government watch list. I don’t think blogger Allan MacDonald did either, though he clearly waded through far more
of them than me, long enough to count 85 innocuous-yet-suspicious activities. From his list, I counted 48 that I personally do or would consider doing, including:
1) Do Not: Use Google Maps to find your way around a strange city.
2) Do Not: Use Google Maps to view photos of sports stadiums.
3) Do Not: Install online privacy protection software on your personal computer.
4) Do Not: Attempt to shield your computer screen from the view of others.
5) Do Not: Shave your beard*, dye your hair or alter your mode of dress.
6) Do Not: Sweat.
7) Do Not: Avoid eye contact.
8) Do Not: Use a cell-phone camera in an airport, train station or shopping mall.
9) Do Not: Seek to work alone or without supervision.
10) Do Not: Appear to be out of place.
*I don’t actually have a beard, but I’ve certainly dyed my hair and altered my mode of dress before.
13) Do Not: Emit strange odors.
not to, but sometimes, especially on days hot or humid enough to make me violate rule #6 (do not sweat) … I’ve been developing a palate for spicy foods lately, as well, and Zod only knows how they affect my oil and sweat glands.
14) Do Not: Travel an “illogical distance” to do your shopping.
15) Do Not: Have someone pick you up from a beauty supply store.
16) Do Not: Be nervous.
17) Do Not: Be a new customer from out of town.
18) Do Not: Use a credit card in someone else’s name.
I’ve done all five things (the credit card was my partner’s, used with his knowledge and consent, but the name on the card differed from the name on the mailing label).
22) Do Not: Make comments involving radical theology.
Do I make comments promoting
radical theology? Not unless you count atheism (as many Americans do). But involving
radical theology? Sure; hard to discuss current affairs without it.
24) Do Not: Express anti-U.S. sentiments.
26) Do Not: Leave store without preprogramming disposable phones.
I’ve never bought a disposable phone, but if ever I did, I probably wouldn’t do anything to it until after I left the store.
27) Do Not: Be overly interested in satellite phones and voice privacy.
What is “overly” interested?
29) Do Not: Ask questions about how phone location can be tracked.
If you use exciting new technologies, curiosity regarding exactly how they work is bad, mm’kay?
31) Do Not: Express out-of-place and provocative religious or political sentiments.
32) Do Not: Purchase a police scanner, infrared device or 2-way radio.
33) Do Not: Act impatient.
38) Do Not: Take photos of the Statue of Liberty or other “symbolic targets.”
39) Do Not: Overdress for the weather.
40) Do Not: Ask questions in a hobby shop about remote controlled aircraft.
41) Do Not: Demonstrate interest that does not seem genuine.
42) Do Not: Request specific room assignments or locations at a hotel or motel.
43) Do Not: Arrive at a lodging with unusual amounts of luggage.
44) Do Not: Refuse cleaning service.
45) Do Not: Avoid the lobby of a hotel or motel.
46) Do Not: Remain in your hotel or motel room.
I’ve never bought remote-controlled aircraft, but if I ever did I’d surely ask questions first. I don’t know how “genuine” my interest would appear, though. And I have no idea how much luggage is considered “unusual.” I never leave anything in my car overnight when I’m staying at a hotel, so the longer I’ve been away from home the more stuff I haul into the room: luggage, cooler, dirty-laundry bag, plus whatever the hell I’ve bought since the start of my trip.
52) Do Not: Make notes that are illegible to passersby.
53) Do Not: Communicate through a PC game.
54) Do Not: Download “extreme/radical” content.
55) Do Not: Exhibit preoccupation with press coverage of terrorist attacks.
56) Do Not: Wear a backpack when the weather is warm.
I don’t play PC games but if I did I’d likely communicate through them, same way I communicate via web forums and social media now. Being a small-government libertarian is considered radical, and after 9/11 I was so preoccupied with press coverage of terrorist attacks, “watching TV news” was pretty much all I did for three solid days.
And I always carry a backpack while doing touristy things (especially in warm weather). I even keep a special tourist backpack where I store my camera, binoculars, road atlas and other things that used to indicate a harmless day-tripper but now suggest possible terrorist activity.
59) Do Not: Mumble to yourself.
That occasional under-the-breath “goddammit” does not conform to the standards of shiny happy America.
60) Do Not: Pass along any anonymous threats you may receive.
I haven’t actually received any, but according to the DHS “See something, say something” advertising campaigns, I thought reporting such things was my patriotic and civic duty? Or do they mean “If someone anonymously threatens my own personal self, don’t report it to the police because it’s your own damned problem?”
61) Do Not: Discreetly take a photo in a mass transit site.
62) Do Not: Arrive with a group of people and split off from them.
Don’t act like a tourist, in other words.
63) Do Not: Demand “identity privacy.”
Like when I buy nicotine patches and won’t let the cashier scan my driver’s license
into her database?
65) Do Not: Make bulk purchases of meals ready to eat.
I haven’t, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since I lost electricity for a week
after the Halloween blizzard. But I would pay cash unless I bought them online, in which case I might use a credit card in someone else’
71) Do Not: Exhibit ire at global policies of the U.S.
72) Do Not: Balk at providing “complete personal information.”
74) Do Not: Receive an unusual number of package deliveries.
78) Do Not: Inquire about security systems at your storage facility.
I don’t rent a storage facility, but if I did, “inquiring about the security systems” is something I’d do before even signing the contract. And what is an “unusual” number of package deliveries?
So that’s 48 things off MacDonnell’s list, plus the “using a residential internet provider” in public-internet spots (either while on vacation, or when my home internet was down for some reason), and the aforementioned “having more than a week’s worth of food on hand.”
I’m no threat to the commonweal or anybody in it, yet I still manage to set off more than half these anti-terrorist alarm bells. And if I tried flying in American airspace – if I submitted to the obscene gropings of some TSAgent – I would surely discover my name on the No-Fly List, since journalists who criticize TSA have the disturbing tendency to be blacklisted
Back when 9/11 was still recent history, news stories claimed that one month before the attack, then-President Bush and key government officials received a memo titled “Bin Laden determined to attack US.” Outraged citizens demanded to know: How could the attacks have happened when the government had a month’s prior warning? Some luckless government spokesperson gave an excuse I found difficult to fault: US intelligence agencies get so many tips and so many false leads, figuring out which threat is real is “like finding a needle in a haystack.”
And thus did our government in its infinite wisdom deem “adding more hay to the stack” the best way to find the next terrorist needle.