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Snitching 28 December 2005

Posted by VARANGALI in Culture, Politics, VARANGALI.


In December 2004, NBA star Carmelo Anthony was seen on a DVD titled “Stop Snitching” that threatened violence on police informers in black communities. Raising a firestorm, Anthony’s presence brought media attention to what is now a thriving underground movement. “Stop Snitching” t-shirts, sold widely in urban areas, are seen by most government officials as an attempt to foil the War on Drugs. Boston mayor Thomas Menino, for example, has threatened removal of all such t-shirts from store shelves.

The current “Stop Snitching” campaign brings to the fore a tension that has always existed in American democracy: do people ultimately decide what is good for the collective or the government the people have created? A healthy disregard for authority is a key element of American identity: the United States was formed through rebellion, and such sentiment was encouraged even after the new government was formed. Thomas Jefferson, for example, noted in 1787, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive.” The underlying principle – the government cannot always be correct in defining what is good for the collective – applies well to snitching.

Some examples are obvious in hindsight: it is standard belief, for example, that McCarthyism overreached and a refusal to inform during the Red Scare has come to be seen as noble. Mark McGwire’s recent stonewalling in the Congressional hearings on steroid use in professional baseball, on the other hand, aroused no sympathy. The current “Stop Snitching” campaign lies somewhere in the middle, and Alexandra Natapoff’s recent Slate piece “Bait and Snitch” (http://www.slate.com/id/2132092) outlines the negative effects of informers on their communities.

The ambiguous morality of snitching is well captured by a few lines of a poem written by Mary MacArthur to her son Douglas MacArthur in 1901, then a West Point cadet being asked to tell on his classmates in a hazing incident gone too far.

“Remember the world will be quick with its blame
If shadow or shame ever darken your name.
Like mother like son is saying so true
The world will judge largely of mother by you.
Be this then your task, if task it shall be
To force this proud world to do homage to me.”

The poem acknowledges the role of public opinion in deciding what is right or wrong – but counsels to ignore it, do what is fundamentally correct and then force public opinion through sheer will to acquiesce. Of course, there is no advice on whether to snitch or not, for that is a very personal decision.

The Islamic response echoes Mary MacArthur’s, albeit removes the democratic reliance on public opinion. The only audience is God, and with a non-Caliphate government, to snitch or not to snitch is again a very personal decision. Further understanding of the Islamic perspective of the issue would also yield useful insight into the differences between Islamic governance and American democracy in terms of legitimacy of authority, the good of the collective, and the importance of conformity.



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