Clara Brown was walking out of the public library in her hometown one day in May when she saw a man struggling with an armload of books. They were slipping away and she quickly offered to help. It was not an unusual act for Clara, for she always liked to help people. Ask anyone in this typical little American town . . . they'll tell you Clara is that kind of a person.
As she reached for the slipping stack of books, about half of them fell to the sidewalk. Quickly, acting on instinct, she bent to help pick them up, planning to carry them for the young man. The first book she picked up caused her to pause. It was called "Islam, The True Religion." As she continued to retrieve the books, she noticed that another book was about Islam and one was called "The Rise of Muslims in America, A Success Story."
Islam and Muslim, she thought. They're somehow related.
As they walked to his nearby car, she politely introduced herself. He responded in kind, apologizing for not being able to shake her hand. His name was Smith, he said, Jeff Smith.
"You don't look like a Muslim," she said, stuttering a little at the thought that she might be talking to the first Muslim she'd ever met. Her hands were trembling. "You don't even have a turban around your head." She was very nervous.
"I'm not Muslim," was his calm reply. And she marveled at how calm he was. He must be some kind of a professional, she thought.
Almost as if he'd read her mind, he added. "I'm a teacher. Islam has been in the news so much lately that I thought I should know something about it. I thought I might use my summer vacation to bone up on other religions of the world. I'm Episcopalian," he said, smiling.
Episcopalian, she thought to herself. That has a funny foreign ring to it. I wonder if it might be some kind of a cult or religious sect, perhaps a branch of those Middle Eastern religions. But she kept her thoughts to herself, partly out of fear. After all, she didn't know this man and someone reading books about Muslims in America these days might be connected to terrorism.
He thanked her politely, got into his car and drove off.
Clara instinctively looked at his license plate. And she jotted down the number. It was a Florida plate. He's a long way from home, she thought. Wasn't it in Florida that the terrorist pilots were trained for their attack on the World Trade Center?
Later, when she got home, she placed that call. It was, she thought, the most important call she had ever made, for Clara was one of the more than a million Americans who have been recruited to "keep an eye on their fellow countrymen" and to report anything suspicious. She was part of the new Operation TIPS program set up by the President's new Department of Homeland Security. She worked for Secretary Ridge, Attorney General Ashcroft and THE President.
Most of the volunteer "operatives" were letter carriers, utility workers, delivery people, cable technicians and others who might have access to people's homes and backyards. Clara was a member of a newcomer's club and volunteered to help her country because she knew everyone in town.
Her son, a staff sergeant in the US Air Force, was also a citizen spy as part of the military's new "snoop" program called Eagle Eyes. He sent her a pair of official US Air Force binoculars to help in her surveillance work. She was thrilled that she and her son had something so important in common. They were fighting terrorism together.
Her husband also had volunteered to be part of the government's new TIA (Total Information Awareness) spy program, partly because of Clara's involvement and partly because he worked as an accountant and had access to the bank and other financial information of many clients. But he had second thoughts and had not turned in any of his clients or friends.
Clara was not so easily dissuaded and was very excited about being a "spy," an "intel" person for the government.
Today, she was so excited she didn't get the name of the person who answered the phone on the other end, but she quickly identified herself and began to tell what she had seen.
Then the questions came.
Was he an Arab? Can you describe him? What color hair did he have? Did he have a beard? Was he wearing unusual clothing? What was he wearing? Did he wear dark glasses? Did you notice the make and model and color of the car? Was there anyone in the car? Did he have to unlock it? How tall was he? How much do you think he weighed? Do you think Smith is his real name? Have you ever seen him before? Are there any Arabs living in your town? Do many tourists come to you town at this time of the year? Have you ever met anyone from Florida before? Did he have a wedding ring on his hand? Can you remember any of the other book titles? What else did he say? Did he appear frightened? Defensive? Did he threaten you? Were you afraid? Do you think he was really a teacher? Where does he teach? Did he say what subjects he taught?
Clara answered all of the questions to the best of her ability. It was her job, she thought. After all, her President had set up this program to feret out terrorists and other suspicious people in America and she was doing her part as a patriotic American.
But this was the first time she had reported anyone.
After she hung up, she was so excited. She wondered what she should do as a follow-up. No one had told her what to do after she reported a suspicious person. Maybe she should ask Molly at the library. Molly had been in that job for many years and knew almost everyone in town. Maybe Molly knew the man. She jumped in her car and headed right back to the library.
"Did you help that young man who was so interested in Islamic religion and being a Muslim in America?" she asked. "He was in here the same day that I picked up the book on Chinese cooking."
"If you mean the young professor who borrowed books about religion, yes I did," Molly replied. "Why do you ask."
"Well, he looked very suspicious to me," Clara stated with all the authority she could muster. "I helped him carry his books and, well you know, we can't be too careful these days. I saw the titles of the books and he sounded very uncertain when he said his name was Smith. That sounded like an alias to me."
"Clara!" Molly said. "You've been seeing too many spy movies. The young man is Professor Jeff Smith from the college. He is new in town. He came here from Florida State University, and he is helping to build a curriculum about religions of the world. It's a real challenge for a young professor and he is now the head of the department of religion in our small college instead of just another professor in a big university. Did you see the titles of ALL the books he borrowed?"
"No." Clara's response was no more than a whisper.
"Well, you should have," Molly admonished. "There was one on Catholicism, one on Judaism, one on Buddhism, and several that reviewed ALL of the major religions of the world. Here, let me show you the entire list of books he borrowed."
Clara's face must have been a bit red, and she was momentarily ashamed of what she had done.
As she scanned the list, she began to feel sick to her stomach. The young professor had, in fact, borrowed books on almost every religion she could think of. What had she done?
"He told me that he is an Episcopalian," she said. "Is that some kind of a cult or a sect of Islam?"
"Clara, where have you been? Episcopalians are just like you and me. They're Christian and have no ties to Islam or any other religion. It's just that we don't have an Episcopal church in our town. What made you think he had ties to Islam?"
Now Clara was really embarrassed. What could she do? Should she tell Molly about her call to the feds? Should she call the feds and try to undo what she had done? But she didn't even know the name of the agent she talked with. Should she contact the young man and tell him? Perhaps she should apologize?
Without a word, Clara turned and walked away from Molly's desk and out of the library. She knew that, under the new Patriot Act, Molly could go to prison if she told Mr. Smith that he was being investigated. She was becoming sick.
She went home, but she could not get it out of her mind. She didn't sleep much that night, and the following morning she called again to the 800 TIP number she had called the day before.
It was a different voice that answered. She identified herself and told what she had done the day before and why she was calling today.
"Don't worry," the woman on the other end said. "You did the right thing. We'll take care of it. Don't give it another thought. Thank you for being so thorough and for following through. Do you have the name of the librarian who helped this man? We really do appreciate your call. You are a wonderful American patriot. The President is proud of you. The President, the Attorney General, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI all thank you very much."
With that, the woman hung up.
Clara tried to put it out of her mind, but to no avail.
Days later, worried and not feeling all that well, Clara drove to the college. She went to the President's office, introduced herself as an "interested resident" and asked to meet with Professor Smith.
"He's in class right now, ma'am," said the receptionist. "But I can have him call you. Would you like to leave your name?"
Clara hurriedly scribbled her name on a piece of paper, and added her home phone number. Then, thanking the receptionist, she left.
She was barely out of the office when the receptionist picked up her phone, dialed an 800 number and, after identifying herself, said:
"Sir, here's another name to add to your list. Clara Brown. I have her phone number too. And she is asking about our new religion professor. It sounds very suspicious. Maybe she is a Muslim or some such thing. I've only lived here for a few months, but I've never seen her before and she really looked suspicious. She was perspiring, seemed very excited and even stuttered when she said the name Jeff Smith. He's the new professor I told you about the other day."
"I have a few questions," said the man on the end of the phone. But first, remember, you know you are doing the right thing. The President's program is working because of American patriots like you. You are a real American patriot. The President, the Attorney General, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are all in your debt. We're all proud of you. We do need more information, however.
"Is this woman who calls herself Clara Brown an Arab? Can you describe her? What color hair did she have? Is it dyed? Was she wearing unusual clothing? What was she wearing? Did she wear dark glasses? Did you see her car? Did you get a license number? Did you notice the make and model and color of the car? Was there anyone else in the car? Did she have to unlock it? How tall was she? How much do you think she weighed? Do you think Clara Brown is her real name? Have you ever seen her before? Are there any other Arabs living in your town? Do many tourists come to you town at this time of the year? Do you know for a fact that she is from your town? Is Brown a married name? Do you know what kind of work she does? What does her husband do? Do they have children? Are any of them in college? Did she have a wedding ring on her hand? Can you remember anything else about her? Did she mention any religious affiliation? What else did she say? Did she appear frightened? Defensive? Did she threaten you? Were you afraid? Do you think she might have been armed? Where does she work? Did she leave her fingerprints on a pen or anything else on your desk?"