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In the gospel according to Woody Allen, “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.” That’s a quote from “Without Feathers.” This season the calf should worry less about lions and more about rats. While lions are nearly extinct in our jungle, the rat population is booming. The year of the lion has given way to the year of the rat. In the polemical screed “A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character,” Charles J. Sykes indicts Americans for their eagerness to don the mantle of victimhood. We insist on seeing ourselves, he argues, as bovine creatures being pushed, poked and prodded by outside forces. We believe that those dark forces are leading us, like cattle, down long, narrow chutes to our ultimate slaughter, victims to the end. Victimness, he contends, has become our national religion. Well, I’ve got news for Sykes. Victims are out. Snitches are in. We are no longer a country of cattle crowded in the chute. We are (fanfare) a cesspool of spies skulking in the shadows. Formerly the province of suave professionals like James Bond and shagadelic spoofs like Austin Powers, espionage is the new national pastime. If U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has his way, spying will be open to the masses. We will have white-collar, blue-collar and no-collar spies. Spies in all shapes, sizes and colors. Everyone will be eligible to eavesdrop — postal workers, truck drivers, plumbers, utility company employees and lawyers. Well, maybe not lawyers. I spy. You spy. We all spy on each other. At least, that was the master plan behind the administration’s Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS) program, as originally hatched by the U.S. Department of Justice. Leave it to killjoys on the right (Republican Dick Armey) and the left (the American Civil Liberties Union), however, to recoil from the prospect of the friendly plumber surreptitiously checking out our bookshelves and video libraries for suspicious material. (That reminds me: Stay away from the foreign film section in the video store, and avoid books by authors with foreign-sounding names.) SPY VS. SPY VS. SPY Bombarded by howls of protest from all quarters, Congress balked at Ashcroft’s attempt to deputize one-half of the citizenry and place the other half on “double-secret probation.” Although Congress has, for the past year, swallowed the administration’s every line (and line item) that invoked the war on terrorism, Congress choked on TIPS. This is really big news. The same Congress which couldn’t heap powers on the DOJ fast enough in the wake of 9/11, the same Congress that passed the so-called Patriot Act before most of its members had bothered to read it, yes, that Congress couldn’t stomach Ashcroft’s remake of “Mission Implausible.” As a result, the administration has been backtracking for months on TIPS without actually abandoning the program. The attorney general, the Big Cheese in the planned nationwide network of rats, has pledged that our citizen-spies won’t actually go inside homes to snoop and that the DOJ (Snitches R Us) will not maintain a central database of tips from TIPS. I’ve got a tip for Ashcroft: TIPS will self-destruct in 30 seconds, and the administration will disavow any knowledge of its (and probably your) existence. Postal workers led a parade of occupations to opt out of the not-so-secret service. Congress is still skeptical of the attorney general’s watered-down proposal, which has more holes than Swiss cheese — and it smells rotten to the public as well. That means you and I probably won’t get our secret decoder rings in the mail anytime soon. No secret handshake. No license to snoop. For now, a plumber is just a plumber, and an exterminator is there to get rid of bugs — not plant them. For now, it’s still safe to chitchat with neighbors and officemates, read racy novels, watch steamy movies, cook foreign dishes and even speak a foreign language. We still live in “America, the Beautiful,” not “America, the Bugged.” Ashcroft’s vision of America (spy vs. spy vs. spy) eerily echoes a few lines from Joseph Heller’s underrated novel “Something Happened.” In a chilling passage, the put-upon protagonist describes his place of employment:
In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of 20, and each of these 20 people is afraid of six people, making a total of 129 people who are feared by at least one person.

Fortunately and for now, a few wise owls in the House and Senate terminated TIPS before our neighborhoods could become Heller’s fictional office. Hey, owls eat rats, right? Paul Coggins is a principal in the Dallas office of Fish & Richardson, a national intellectual property, complex litigation and technology firm. He is a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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