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Is the US Becoming a ‘Nation of Snitches?’

Barbara Ferguson | July 19 2004

There are ten and a half million truckers and 660-thousand trucking companies nationwide. The government has found good use for these men by recruiting a volunteer “army” of truckers to report any suspicious behavior on the highways.

“Highway Watch is a safety initiative that takes advantage of the skills, experience and road smarts of America’s transportation professionals and joins the transportation industry, law enforcement, and other safety professionals as allies working together to make the nation’s highways safer,” says the Highway Watch website at www.highwaywatch.com.

The website boasts a program open to an “elite core [sic] of truck drivers,” and offers nationwide training sessions. The program currently boasts 10,000 amateur sleuths on the road, but its goal is to increase the number to 40,000 by adding toll booth workers, rest stop employees and construction workers. To do so, the $19.3 million Highway Watch budget, will be increased to $22 million in 2005.

The program does not stop there. The Department of Homeland Security has also launched Port Watch, River Watch and Transit Watch — all on the lookout for suspicious characters. Doormen and building superintendents are also reportedly being trained by the thousands to watch out for strange trucks and tenants.

Critics of the program, such as the Washington-based Cato Institute, say the government is turning Americans into “nation of snitches.” Anti-discrimination organizations are concerned that anyone deemed different risk being reported by these zealous volunteer detectives.

Time Magazine recently examined the problems of the program. After a training session in Little Rock, Arkansas, two newly initiated Highway Watch truckers, who haul hazardous material across 48 states, explained to the Time reporter how easy it is to spot “Islamics” on the road. “Just look for their turbans,” they said.

“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, Arkansas, said adding he had 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.”

“That kind of prejudice is hard to undo,” wrote the Time reporter, adding the training program Dean had just attended omitted the fact that it’s “almost always Sikhs who wear turbans, not Muslims.”

Last year, a turbaned Sikh driver was shot twice while standing near his tractor-trailer in Phoenix, Arizona. He survived the attack and police have yet to find the attackers.

When a thief recently stole an oil tanker in Texas it quickly caught law enforcement’s attention. The authorities later recovered the rig, saying it highlighted the potential for terrorists to launch an attack using trucks filled with hazardous materials.

Citing the stolen oil tanker, the government announced it would tighten security: “We will begin a new pilot program that utilizes technology to track high risk trucks on our nation’s highways in all 50 states,” Tom Ridge, Secretary for Homeland Security, recently told reporters.

He refused to give specifics, but those in the trucking industry say the new technology will allow mechanics to automatically shut off a new truck’s engine by using a computer.

But critics say because the trucking industry is so large it will be virtually impossible to prevent an attack, but that hasn’t deferred the eager truckers who say the program is a morale booster, and that they are will to do their part.