Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Snitching, Hip Hop, and the War on Terror

Two helpful readers brought these snitching-related items to my attention:

Snitch or leave the country: A Los Angeles Times feature while I was on vacation told the story of a Moroccan man threatened by the FBI with deportation if he refused to become an informant at his mosque ("Pressured to name names," Aug. 7). No evidence was ever brought against the fellow save for allegations by unnamed informants that he'd made statements about the US government which would be protected if he were a citizen. He fought the FBIs demands and went public, ultimately winning his court battle. Others, says the article, have fought and lost. But think how many thousands must have succumbed to similar pressure? According to the Times, terrorism investigations are based on snitches more frequently than other types of traditional police work:
Informants have long been key to criminal investigations. But they are usually used merely to turn up leads. Agents then accumulate other evidence or follow through on their own, undercover.

Terrorism cases, in contrast, are increasingly built solely on informants.

Rand Corp. terrorism expert Brian Jenkins said the reasons are varied. The FBI lacks agents with language and ethnic backgrounds to infiltrate potential jihadist groups. Pressure has mounted to intervene before terrorist acts are carried out. And would-be terrorists now favor "local initiatives beneath the radar of international intelligence," he said, making investigation of homegrown groups much more critical.

The recent arrests of seven Miami men who allegedly talked of blowing up Chicago's Sears Tower, for example, stemmed entirely from the work of an undercover FBI informant who posed as an Al Qaeda operative.

Still, problems with informants in high-profile cases have underscored the perils.

The informant, and star witness, in a botched Detroit terrorism prosecution allegedly told his cellmate that he had lied. The case unraveled after an investigation revealed prosecutors had withheld that and other key information from the defense.
Damned if you do: See Temple Professor Marc Lamont Hill's "Barbershop Notebook" from PopMatters.com in February on the "hip hop community" and what he calls the "stop snitching campaign." (I'm not sure it's a "campaign" so much as a "meme" - if it's a campaign, then it's one that's arisen from the bottom up with no identifiable leadership.) Writes Hill:
While it is certainly problematic to condemn all acts of communication with authorities, it is equally shortsighted and irresponsible to advocate an absolute pro-snitching position.

The act of snitching necessarily creates a social and ethical quagmire in which an individual must sacrifice one set of loyalties for another. More specifically, the potential snitch is forced to choose between competing ethical codes and social commitments when making their decision. Often, this process entails deciding between locally defined rules and larger, more official ones. For example, Lil' Kim's refusal to identify her crew members as assailants during a shootout at the Hot 97 radio station was an anti-snitching gesture that privileged her friendship bonds and street ethics over the established laws of the land regarding obstruction of justice. While it is tempting to condemn all such acts on moral or ethical grounds — in this case, arguing that Kim should have protected the interests of the assaulted and not those of the assailants — it is necessary to consider the validity and value of the particular rules and issues at stake on a case-by-case basis.
See other Grits posts on snitching.

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