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True patriots say something


It’s a funny thing, that Patriot Act. Just when you start to think that maybe the act itself is an infringement of personal freedom, an event like the Fort Dix Six comes along and readjusts your view of preventative surveillance.

If you’re not brushed up on your current events—maybe you’ve been too busy studying supply-chain schematics?—allow me to refresh your memory. The Fort Dix Six, a.k.a. the Pizza Jihad, is the case in New Jersey in which an alleged home-grown cell of mostly non-Arab Muslims is suspected of plotting to wreak havoc on a New Jersey military base, among other locations.

What these alleged terrorists overlooked in their planning, however, is that the American people have actually been paying attention to local authorities, which have been instructing every man, woman and child that, “If you see something, say something.”

On May 8 that ‘something’ came from none other than a retail employee. To be more exact, it came from a Circuit City photo lab clerk in Mount Laurel, N.J., who became suspicious in January 2006 when a video he was converting to DVD turned up alarming images of a gun-toting, Jihad-professing masked militia boasting of plans to shoot and kill members of the U.S. military. In turn, that suspicion led to a tip-off of authorities, who spent the next 16 months tracking the suspects and ultimately thwarting plans for what might have been the biggest case of domestic terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001.

Since news of the Pizza Jihad (named for the fact that one of the suspects allegedly scoped out the military base during his employment as a pizza delivery man) was released to the public, there has been no shortage of speculation as to the suspects’ intentions—with theories ranging from random, isolated shootings to widespread mayhem. There’s been a clear consensus, on the other hand, as to what led to their apprehension: a vigilant retail employee helping to serve as the eyes and ears of the authorities.

In addition to the overwhelming sense of relief from having prevented another act of domestic terrorism, this case underscores the fact that the everyday Joe can play a larger preventative role than some might imagine. And since the retail industry is staffed with millions of everyday Joes (and Jills), it stands to reason that the retail industry itself can play a pivotal role in observing and reporting suspicious behavior.

At Wal-Mart, for example, a store that has been called the soul of the American consumer psyche, its 1.3 million associates come in contact either directly or indirectly with more than 127 million customers in the United States each week. This means that a typical Wal-Mart checkout alone serves as a window into the behavior of the average American shopper. But the story of the Fort Dix Six is not just about the biggest of big boxes, as Circuit City can attest. All retailers, and all retail employees, owe it to themselves (if not to the security of their fellow citizens) to keep a watchful eye on the behavior of those around them—including their shoppers.

If a consumer were to walk into a Tractor Supply store and purchase a pallet of fertilizer, it should not only send up a red flag in the minds of TSC employees, but there should be a system in place that encourages and facilitates an employee’s ability to convey that information to the appropriate authorities—even if the system is simply an unwritten rule communicated and reinforced by the store manager.

And the same should hold true throughout retailing, where there’s no shortage of examples of potentially threatening behavior. If a customer’s shopping cart at Ace Hardware resembles the ingredients for a dirty bomb, shouldn’t the cashier be alarmed? If a customer at Cabela’s professes extremist militant allegiance while inquiring about semi-automatic firearms, shouldn’t the sales clerk be alarmed? And if a customer on eBay seeks to buy security blueprints for the Pentagon, shouldn’t the data research team be alarmed?

Despite the many claims by civil libertarians that such preventative surveillance is an infringement of individual rights, the acts of one Circuit City employee have demonstrated, irrefutably, that the public can indeed play an active role in thwarting violence. And as an industry with direct contact with tens of millions of Americans each day, there’s no choice but to recognize that this issue is your business.

Although the Circuit City example may simply be the case of an individual associate’s heads-up reaction (as opposed to a well-planned corporate initiative), it still underscores the fact that the Fort Dix Six should be a wake-up call to all retailers: If you don’t yet have a policy or strategy to deal with preventative surveillance, it’s time to get one.

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