How to avoid being tagged as a terrorist: Don't pay cash for coffee

Barista on Watch: FBI program distributes generic criteria as 'terrorist warning signs'

It's difficult to figure out where you stand in the eyes of the law these days TSA, the Dept. of Homeland Security and various other security operations use a chain of super-secret, largely extralegal administrative criteria to decide who should go on the No Fly list, who should be watched as a potential terrorist, what kinds of online behavior seem hackerish and whether a desire for privacy is simply preserving one's dignity or a red flag indicating a nefarious and violent purpose.

If you're trying to keep track of either the rules or your status – or just trying to keep from being barred from the country for joking in Twitter or arrested at the airport for not wanting to decrypt your hard drive to satisfy the curiosity of a TSA agent who should be looking for contraband weapons, not data – here's the latest update.

According to a set of guidelines sent out by the FBI as part of its Communities Against Terror program, ordinary citizens need to be on the lookout for suspicious characters who follow patterns of behavior particularly indicative of a covert operative with mayhem on his or her mind.

As part of its Communities Against Terrorism" program, the FBI distributes fliers aimed at 25 different industries "purportedly highlighting typical activity of a terrorist who might frequent a shopping mall, Internet café, tattoo shop, bulk fuel distributor or other typical hangout of the Jihadist underground.

CAT is part of a program run by the Dept. of Justice called the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training program (SLATT), which could provide effective, well-grounded do and information for law enforcement and citizens on what to do in case of emergency, how to recognize behavior that is a genuine indicator someone may be up to no good and what to do about it.

The Israelis do a particularly good job at that kind of training by emphasizing practical, realistic indicators and warning potentially overzealous watchers not to see terrorist intent in every sidelong glance or odd encounter.

The CAT/SLATT criteria aren't quite as precise. They differ for each industry, and some are actually useful (e.g. "requests large quantities of hydrogen peroxide or acetone" and "travels illogical distance to store").

Most of the "warning signs" could apply to almost anyone, any time, making the whole effort less credible both to trainees and the currently-not-alert-enough baristas and clerks the feds evidently count on to foil the next major terrorist attack.

Using Google Maps to find your way around a strange city, to view photos of sports stadium or the cities themselves or installing software on your PC designed to protect your privacy online are all solid indications not that you're a terrorist, rather than a web-savvy traveler.

The latest revelation from the FBI files? Paying in cash for coffee.

Using cash for small purchases like a cup of coffee, gum and other items is a good indication that a person is trying to pass for normal without leaving the kind of paper trail created using a debit or credit card for small purchases.

The most recent update asks coffee shop owners, baristas and other customer-service specialists to be on the lookout for the enemy who walks among us (who evidently has been reanimated from the graves of the 1950s Red Scare era of blacklisting and Communist-baiting or the KGB's constant witch hunt for capitalist sympathizers or people who resent being witch-hunted for their political beliefs).

No one objects to the FBI or any other law enforcement agency keeping an eye out for terrorists. Trying to get everyone involved in such a silly, time-wasting way to manufacture suspicion and false accusations is not the way to do it.

Not only does it waste time by identifying everyone as a potential suspect, it erodes what alertness or willingness to cooperate members of the public may have by crying wolf over and over until, the next time a real wolf does show up, it's more likely to get a cup of coffee and pat on the back than a suspicious look-over by a hard-eyed barista.

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