Columnists > Voices

Wal-Mart wisdom

Citizen shoppers aren't overly worried about federal snoops project

Issue: "Snakepit," Feb. 11, 2006

It had been well over a year since I'd dropped by the local Wal-Mart for one of my occasional opinion surveys. And I was more and more irritated by what seemed to me to be a lopsided focus by the mainstream media on President Bush's use of secret wiretaps in the war on terrorism. So what better way, I thought, to discover what ordinary Americans really think than to ask them face-to-face?

I was absolutely direct with 50 different shoppers over a two-hour time frame. "Are you personally concerned," I asked each one, "about the possibility that the federal government might be listening in on your phone calls? That's been in the news a lot, you know."

They knew. Not a single one of the 50 people I talked to seemed in the dark about the issue, and that surprised me. Yet what surprised me even more was the superficiality of their answers-on both sides of the question. Most of the responses tended to be accompanied with some variation of a look of dismay that said: "You're not really taking this stuff seriously, are you?"

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Almost everyone I talked with related the issue of phone taps to terrorist threats. Some saw that threat as very real, and therefore worth some loss in personal liberty, while others viewed it as nothing more than a governmental excuse to snoop.

"I know they say they have to do it to catch the terrorists," said Wayne, who amazingly was my only interviewee who wouldn't give his last name. "But if Bush says that's why they have to do it, then I simply don't trust it." And why doesn't Wayne trust the president? "That's just his reputation, that's all," he said.

Melissa Dean was trusting in her simple response: "If they listen to me, it's got to be for a good reason." And Debbie Rollins agreed: "They've got a more important life than we do," she said.

A few wanted to split the difference. "For me, no way," said Velda Ellege. "But if it's foreigners they want to listen to, that's just fine, so far as I'm concerned."

For the record-and I stress that there's no statistical significance here-the respondents split pretty much down the middle. Out of 50, 23 said they weren't concerned, 21 said they were, and the other six gave garbled replies. I thought of repeating my interviews around the corner in front of the Barnes & Noble bookstore, just to see how the sophisticates there might differ from the blue-collar folks at Wal-Mart; but that experiment will have to wait for another day.

The most emphatic, and probably most persuasive, response of my outing came from George Fox. "I don't worry about them listening," he said. "I just don't talk on the phone that much. Fact is, I don't make no phone calls at all."

I had to conclude: Whatever listening the government does, they're going to have to do a lot of it to hear anything that makes sense.

Two families of WORLD readers were touched by death last week.

Robert Singleton had been for the last dozen years a faithful member of our board of directors, serving as chairman for most of those years. Professionally, he had been chief financial officer for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, a powerhouse media company with newspaper and broadcasting properties across the country. As a volunteer, he served on the boards of Baptist Health Systems in Miami, Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Evangelism Explosion, and other organizations as well. He played a sweet, lively, and accurate trumpet, loving composition and performance each almost as much as the other. Nothing could have been more appropriate than the jazz band that played "When the Saints Go Marching In" as his casket was wheeled out of the church at his funeral last week in Miami. Bob was 75.

In Partridge, Kan., David and Trish Wagler got the news from Baghdad last week that they dreaded most. Word came that their 18-year-old son Peter had been killed when a bomb exploded near the Abrams tank in which he was conducting patrols. Peter was the fifth of the Waglers' eight children. In a letter Peter wrote for his family-to be opened and read only if he didn't make it back from Iraq-he said: "I would rather live my life fully and die young than live a long and boring life." "Peter was a faithful WORLD fan," his father told us. "We would try to read our issues quickly so we could forward them to Peter in the Army. Now he won't need them."

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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