A decade after winning the Cold War, is America in danger of a communist takeover? You might think so if you've been listening to the critics of a proposed antiterror effort called Operation TIPS.
TIPS, which stands for Terrorism Information and Prevention System, is a sort of nationwide Neighborhood Watch. "The program will involve the millions of American workers who, in the daily course of their work, are in a unique position to see potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public places," explains the Web site of the Citizen Corps, which administers both TIPS and Neighborhood Watch.
The Justice Department planned to ask postal workers and utility workers, among others, to keep an eye out and to call a toll-free number if they see anything fishy. But the Washington Post reported Saturday that in the face of harsh criticism, the department has decided to limit the program to truckers, bus drivers and others whose jobs don't take them anywhere near private homes.
Granted, the notion of deputizing mailmen as intelligence gatherers does not inspire a great deal of confidence. Yet most of the opposition to TIPS has focused not on its effectiveness or lack thereof but on its supposedly totalitarian nature.
It began in mid-July when one Ritt Goldstein--a self-described "former leader in the movement for U.S. law enforcement accountability" who "has lived in Sweden since 1997, seeking political asylum there"--penned an essay for an Australian newspaper in which he warned that under TIPS "the U.S. will have a higher percentage of citizen informants than the former East Germany through the infamous Stasi secret police." Brian Doherty of the libertarian Reason magazine picked up the theme: "The East Germans had a more stylish and nakedly sinister name for the same idea: the formerly feared, and apparently now fondly missed, Stasi."
The liberal Boston Globe editorialized that Attorney General John Ashcroft and "his fellow travelers" should "consult some of the citizens in the former East Germany who discovered, when looking into their Stasi files, that under the former regime they had been spied upon for years by a husband or wife." The paper added that TIPS "would give Stalin and the KGB a delayed triumph in the Cold War." (Who knew the Boston Globe was so fervidly anticommunist?) And Rep. Dick Armey, the House Republican leader, struck TIPS from the homeland-security bill, saying he objected to "citizens spying on one another."
It's a common enough theme in debates over civil liberties: If we're not vigilant about protecting our freedoms, even at the cost of national or personal security, we will gradually turn into a totalitarian society. But this is pure myth. TIPS will no more turn America into East Germany than the Stasi turned East Germany into East Germany. The Stasi was an effect, not a cause, of East German communism. It didn't even come into existence until 1950, five years after the Soviets had occupied eastern Germany and set about establishing a communist state.
The East German example is typical, for there is no such thing as "creeping totalitarianism." No totalitarian regime has ever come to power without political violence--revolution, invasion, civil war, coup d'état, terrorism or some combination thereof. (Hitler became chancellor through the democratic process, but it took an act of terror, the Reichstag fire, to transform Germany into a dictatorship.)
Some totalitarian rulers, like the Nazis, have required constant slaughter to maintain power; others, like the East German communists, have established gentler forms of social control and oppressed their subjects with minimal bloodshed. But violence is always at the root of totalitarianism. Fearsome as it was, the Stasi's power evaporated instantly when the guards stopped shooting East Germans who tried to cross the Berlin Wall.
Those who warn of creeping totalitarianism mistake form for substance, forgetting that the instruments of totalitarian rule are distinct from totalitarianism itself. Every major country has military, intelligence and police agencies. What distinguishes free countries from unfree ones is the purpose of these institutions. In a totalitarian state, they exist to control citizens' lives; in a free one, to protect citizens' liberty.
One might reasonably argue that contemporary Americans have occasionally caught a whiff of totalitarianism--but only a whiff--when the government has used excessive force against citizens. The cases of Ruby Ridge, Waco and Elian Gonzalez come to mind.
But it's been a long time since the stench of oppression on American soil was as pungent as it was last Sept. 11. The men behind that day's atrocities seek to use violence to impose on the world a totalitarian theocracy along the lines of Saudi Arabia or Taliban Afghanistan--a regime in which infidels are executed, women are property, and most forms of fun are verboten.
Isn't that a lot scarier than nosy mailmen?
Mr. Taranto is editor of OpinionJournal.com.