Diesel rigs rumble through the Triple T Truck Stop on Interstate 10, where Gerald Crews and Walter Getchell are climbing down from their cab. They're en route to California with a load of car batteries. But since September 11, more than just the lonesome road is wearing down this grizzled, hard-driving pair.
"We're nothing but nervous out on the road these days," Crews says, rubbing a stubbled chin. "We're always keeping an eye out for suspicious looking loads, drivers who are acting erratic."
Like many Americans, these truckers consider themselves the eyes and ears of homeland security. After thousands of miles, however, they have yet to spot any wild-eyed terrorists or questionable cargoes. Regardless, one can't be too careful. "You never know what's going to happen from one moment to the next," says Getchell, leaning against his big rig adorned with flag decals.
Cautious or not, this kind of citizen vigilance has prompted nearly a half-million calls to the FBI, and thousands more to local law enforcement agencies, including Tucson Police and the Pima County Sheriff's Department.
True, some tips have helped nab felonious creeps. For example, Clayton Lee Waagner, suspected of mailing hundreds of anthrax threats to abortion clinics, was arrested in December after being spotted by a Kinko's employee. And an English professor in California alerted authorities when a student wrote two of the 9/11 hijackers' names on an exam booklet. The student was later found to have terrorist ties.
But by and large, the barrage of calls from nervous citizens have proved a pain in the arse for cops, and signify a potent--and potentially dangerous--social paranoia. "The general idea that people should be watchful is not objectionable," says Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way in Washington, D.C. "The problem is: will it go too far? Will it produce an hysteria, or over-concern?"
The fruits of misplaced suspicion have been seen across the United States. A few gems: Amherst, N.Y., police responded to repairmen who thought they'd seen a photo of Osama bin Laden in an apartment, and a postman who said he'd delivered a letter containing Arabic writing. But officers soon learned that the resident in question was an innocent engineering student. Atlanta police heard that a young man was taking photos of a downtown federal building, only to find that he was researching an architecture class project. In Los Angeles, officers constantly receive reports about bags left unattended around City Hall--bags which inevitably belong to homeless people.
Here at home, an early tsunami of reports has made officers more selective in how they handle calls, says Sgt. Judy Altieri of TPD. "It's really calmed down for us," she says, adding that the department was getting dozens of panicky reports just after the World Trade Center attacks.
This slowdown is welcome, Altieri says, following the flashy crisis at KGUN-TV in early October when a producer opened a letter laced with white powder that later proved harmless. But the hoax rattled everyone. "It was quite an event. After that we had to come with up with a system for handling those calls, because we couldn't respond to every one we received in that manner."
Capt. Frank Duarte heads the emergency preparedness program for the Pima County Sheriff's Department. After the first anthrax scare, the department "was handling 30-plus calls a day," he says, "but it's leveled off. Now we get maybe 30 a week."
Duarte's officers tell people that most citizens aren't at risk. "The people that have been targeted have been news media, and postal workers who have gotten (anthrax) as a result of handling the mail. So it seems to me unless you are a person of some notoriety, you're probably not going to have any problems."
Still, an alert public is crucial for thwarting terrorist activity, says agent Ed Hall of the FBI's Phoenix office. "I think we're aware that people in their own neighborhoods are best able to know if something is suspicious or not." To cut down on frivolous calls, the FBI urges people to first share their concerns with friends or neighbors, "since what's suspicious to one person may not be suspicious to another," Hall says.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Customs Service is ratcheting citizen participation up a notch through Operation Shield America, an aggressive new program directed towards companies dealing in products that could prove valuable to terrorists. "The purpose is to prevent terrorist organizations from acquiring sensitive U.S. technology," says agency spokesman Kevin Bell, "and a big part of it is outreach to business." The list of red-flag items ranges from common military encryption devices to more eccentric purchases such as missiles or grenade launchers.
But could the program target innocent customers? "It is possible," Bell says. "If the business thinks for whatever reason that a person seems suspicious, hopefully they'll call us and we'll check it out. We have really good investigators, and they can determine fairly quickly whether or not there's something there."
Surprisingly, UA students may be the most circumspect of anyone when it comes to terrorist threats. At least campus police haven't had a mad rush of worried calls, says Commander Brian Seastone. He says college staff and students are handling the crisis "exceptionally well. People have become more vigilant--things they might have let go before, something that didn't seem right, they're calling about a little bit more. But there's no hysteria or anything."
Meanwhile, if you're hoping for a bit of escapism through that favorite American narcotic known as shopping, think again. Big retailers are consumed with enhancing security, while trying not to frighten away customers. "It's really a question of awareness and sensitivity with our sales associates," says Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams in Bentonville, Ark. "And we can do it without changing the environment of the store." Williams declined to discuss specific measures taken by Wal-Mart.
Achieving employee awareness without overkill requires a fine-tuned approach, says Nancy Smith, human resources vice president with The Association for Independent Growth. Her Philadelphia- based organization provides employee management advice to city and county governments. Employers need to tell workers, "Here's the law, here's what they can and cannot ask, here's what action they can if a person looks suspicious," she says.
Not surprisingly, looking suspicious also involves looking Middle Eastern. On a national level, more than 1,100 people have been held by authorities. Most are found to have no terrorist links, and remain in detention on minor immigration violations.
Since September 11, the Washington, D.C.-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has responded to more 500 incidents of violence, 400 reports of workplace discrimination, and countless racial profiling complaints. "We're especially seeing this over-zealousness in situations where people are denied public participation, such as on passenger flights, where this attitude has been directed towards people of perceived ethnicity," says committee spokesman Hussein Ibish
Having ready ethnic targets can trigger society's darker elements, says Bryan Byers, a terrorism expert and social psychologist at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "Such behavior is an expected consequence--and pretty typical behavior-- of individuals, groups, and communities in the aftermath of something horrible."
Byers applauds recent public service radio announcements stressing cultural diversity. "If people are allowed to perceive everyone in a particular class of people as evil, they are going to maintain their prejudicial thinking," he says. "Research shows, however, that prejudice will decrease if an individual is able to see another person who is different from them as a person, a human being, as opposed to a dehumanized collective."
Back at Triple T, Gerald Crews and Walter Getchell don't care to opine on dehumanized collectives. But they do know what makes them edgy, and that's simply being on the road in the aftermath of September 11. "One minute you could be driving along," Crews says, "and the next minute you could be in the middle of some uproar."
His eyes narrow and his brow furrows slightly. "More worried about security out there?" he asks. "You bet. Man, we feel it every day."
Getchell nods in agreement, and hops back in the cab to turn off the radio. Johnny Cash gets squelched mid-line, amidst the diesel roar at this crossroads of the Brave New World.