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Walmart Shoppers: State-sponsored Spies?

The Department of Homeland Security has recently announced the creation of a program called “If You See Something, Say Something.” This catchy title comes from an agreement that the DHS has reached with Walmart, in which the store promises full cooperation in the DHS’s campaign to convince Walmart customers and store employees to report any “suspicious” activity to local police or store management, who would then inform local police. Walmart is only a part of the program – posters, billboards and advertisements will be placed in airports, bus stations, movie theaters, and gas stations around the country, in addition to the videos that will soon begin playing non-stop inside 600 Walmart stores. This propaganda campaign will be promoting one consistent, repetitive message – the people around you cannot be trusted, watch them carefully at all times!

This program, of course, is being defended as necessary to fight the ubiquitous and shadowy threat of terrorism. Miraculously, the nation has somehow managed to avoid any terrorist attacks for almost a decade without such a campaign. But according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, we are living in dangerous times, which require aggressive measures to protect us all from whatever it is that we all need to be protected from.

The dangers presented by a campaign such as this are obvious. Every dictatorship that has ever existed has enlisted the aid of its citizens to spy on each other and report “suspicious” activity. What historical study shows is that people have largely used campaigns like this as an excuse to exact petty revenge against their personal enemies, and these campaigns have contributed significantly to the repressive nature of these non-democratic regimes as a result. Programs such as this will inevitably plant seeds of paranoia and fear, the kind of emotions that help keep us divided by animosity at a time when it is more crucial than ever that we stay united in our determination to identify the nature of the real threats that we all face.

It is alarming, but perhaps not surprising, that government attempts to define “suspicious” activity have been vague to the extreme. This is not the DHS’s only foray into this type of undertaking, either; in association with the Department of Justice, they have been working with a laundry list of local, state, federal and even international institutions and organizations to set up an interlocking intelligence network dedicated to information sharing and spying. The scope and scale of this network will dwarf any kind of intelligence operation that has ever been set up in the history of the world.

It is not known what the ultimate purpose of all this activity is supposed to be. Given the tenuous connection between such obtrusive, overarching programs and any legitimate threat of terrorist attack from abroad, it seems doubtful that this is all about combating terrorism. So-called Homeland Security fusion centers, ostensibly created to facilitate better coordination in the alleged War on Terrorism, have been given increasingly expanded powers of surveillance and investigation in recent years, further centralizing the government’s ability to indulge its obsession with monitoring the activities of law-abiding American citizens. In studying and analyzing all of this government activity, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that we are headed down a very slippery slope towards a police state. This may seem over the top to some; but our 4th Amendment is absolute in its condemnation of the surveillance state, while the 5th Amendment guarantees the presumption of innocence. Programs like this new DHS-Walmart venture clearly violate both the spirit and the letter of these important protections, and no one in a position of power seems to be doing anything to try and stop it.

In the end, it is up to us to take responsibility for protecting our own freedoms. If Walmart suffers a loss of sales because of its alliance with Big Brother, they might rethink their position. It must be remembered that a company like Walmart ultimately depends on customer goodwill for its success, and if we make it clear we are not going to stand for this new program they will be forced to respond. We do have the power to protect our own freedom and our own lives – it is up to us to exercise that power every day, in ways both big and small, if we hope to preserve our rights during the times when they are most threatened.

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