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By Gary T. Marx
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- When a Texas police sergeant who coordinates a successful crime reporting program was quoted as saying that "we get husbands turning in wives, wives turning in husbands --we've even had mothers turning in their sons," he had not yet run across children who informed on their parents. But that is what happened recently in Tustin, Calif., where a 13-year-old girl turned in her parents for possession of marijuana and cocaine.
One of the many Hollywood entrepreneurs who hopes to make a film of this case told reporters that "this is a one of a kind situation and you have to move quickly." This is not altogether accurate. The specifics of the case are obviously unusual, but the practice of informing has become increasingly common in American society. In what amounts to a break with 18th and 19th century American attitudes, informing is now seen as an element of good citizenship, commanding growing institutional and technical support.
Federal Cabinet agencies, for example, now provide hot lines for citizens to report instances of "fraud, abuse and waste." The Federal witness protection program provides relocation and a new identity to informers. Programs such as TIP (turn in a pusher) are found in hundreds of communities. Connecticut has a turn in a poacher program and Seattle encourages motorists to dial 734-HERO to report persons wrongfully driving in expressway lanes reserved for car pools and buses. "WeTIP, Inc.," a private organization that counts large corporations among its clients, offers a nationwide hot line for reporting suspicious activities that employees are hesitant to report locally.
There is much to be said in a democracy for citizen participation in activities normally reserved for the authorities. It can help the police and, at little financial cost, extend surveillance. Hot lines have helped locate fugitives wanted for serious offenses and have identified cost overruns in government programs. Yet the new wave of informing also has its less attractive side.
The Tustin case is fascinating in that regard. The denouncer was not anonymous, the offense in question involves criminal law, not political belief, the possession of narcotics offers a strong presumption of guilt, and there is no reason to think the parents will be denied due process. Yet the case is very troubling.
It is troubling because the accuser is a child rather than an adult and a close relative rather than an occasional acquaintance. Given the evidence, the police were forced to act. But there were other values at stake. Is the possession of drugs for personal use a serious enough crime to justify the immediate arrest of the parents on the basis of a child's evidence and the transfer of the child herself to a foster home? Were less severe responses available? Is the damage to the fabric of that family balanced by the public good served by confiscating a modest amount of drugs and by the message such action sends to the public?
It is necessary to make distinctions among informers. We cringe at the behavior of anonymous denouncers and we more easily admire the informer who has not been involved in the corruption he reports than the informer who himself has been involved in illegality. We may also see the person who has a change of heart and informs on the activities of friends differently from the person who begins with a plan to use friendship as the means of betrayal. Providing information on the whereabouts of a fugitive is not the same as malicious slander.
Our assessment must also take into account the nature and seriousness of the offense, the various means available to remedy or punish it and the identity of the informer and his or her relationship to those informed upon.
Drugs are a serious manner but so are family relationships. Machiavelli caught the essence of the conflict in values which the Tustin case presents: "We never try to escape one difficulty without running into another; but prudence consists in knowing how to recognize the nature of the difficulties and how to choose the least bad as good."
Informing in a democratic society, particularly when it involves minors or family members, offers us a queasy moral paradox. And this paradox is likely to become more prominent as the drive to engage the public in anticrime efforts gains momentum --a drive that itself is only part of a broader and increasingly more intrusive campaign to increase the surveillance of America's citizenry.
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