Or, in other words, a very, very, very bad idea… but sadly not the first time we’ve seen something just like this.
There’s the “if you see something, say something” campaign that you see plastered all over the place in the greater NYC metro area (and probably elsewhere), as well as the “anti-terrorist hotline” in the UK – among many other examples.
The problem with systems like this is that they’re often very poorly thought out and ripe for abuse. Really, these systems are just ways for people to snitch on one another for vague and ill-defined reasons.
A system like this can only work if:
- People are capable of making reliable judgements on risk (they aren’t)
- People can be trusted to only make objective reports (they can’t)
- Few people will abuse the system for personal gain (they won’t)
People being people, you will see people reporting others that they don’t like, or trying to submit false reports to harass others – especially if the system is anonymous. Anonymous tips from the public are fine, but if you treat every anonymous tip as legitimate (and with terrorism tips like this, you almost have to, or else what’s the point) you are quickly going to find yourself chasing a LOT of dead ends, wasting time and effort, and just generally getting drowned in the noise of the system.
And if the system isn’t anonymous, what sort of review process is there? Where does this fit in the context of judicial review? What sort of penalties are their for false statements? If the penalties are too low, then the system is ripe for abuse just like if it was anonymous. If the penalties are too high, then people won’t use it for fear of making a mistake – thus nullifying the entire point of the whole thing (and easy way to report “suspicious” activity).
Even if somehow a middle ground is found for this system… where do these reports go? How long are they stored? Can you submit a plausible (but false) report about someone you don’t like, and then have that person get subtly harassed for years afterwards (getting “extended” pat downs whenever they travel, finding themselves on black lists, the subject of needless surveillance, etc.).
Finally, can you trust the public to really know what “suspicious activity” is? The answer is, resoundingly, “no.” Unless the would-be perpetrator is being astoundingly obvious about his/her intentions, the likelihood of anything they do seeming “suspicious” is practically nil. And of course, there are far more ordinary and innocent things that people do all the time that might (incorrectly) appear suspicious if you don’t know the whole story (or are already in a paranoid mindset).
When you consider all of these problems – and these are all legitimate, real problems with a system like this – you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. Is the thing you’re trying to prevent (terrorism) worth all the mistakes and harassment and wasted time, effort, and money? Because terrorism is, realistically, a rare thing – despite what some people would like you to believe – and it’s unclear whether it’s worthwhile to try and prevent these rare events, when it’s unproven whether such methods would even have an effect at all!
If terrorism were something mundane, like say, tooth decay, we’d NEVER even consider measures like this – you’d be a laughing stock if you even suggested such an insane idea. Even if it were something equally (or even more) deadly, but less emotionally charged, like say, wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets (all of which are the cause of far more death & pain & suffering than terrorism is), there would still be heavy political and civil opposition to such a heavy-handed approach, not to mention lots of arguments about all the money it would cost.
I know it’s hard to do, but it really is very important to take the “emotional” aspect out of the question when you’re dealing with policies like this – because it just skews things so far into the realm of the unreal that it’s not even funny… and in many ways, it’s quite dangerous, especially to those principles we hold dear.