WASHINGTON -- Can snitching be ethical? The question has troubled me ever since I was a little-bitty boy. I ratted out my neighborhood friend Andrew. He had brazenly filched a couple of cookies out of his mother's cookie jar after she told us not to. When I snitched, Drew was ticked off at me. But his mom let him off the hook. She even gave each of us a cookie. Years later, Andrew would go to prison on much more serious charges. I would pursue a career in journalism. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.
My childhood friend came to mind when I heard about a Web site called whosarat.com, which is devoted to snitching on snitchers. It posts names, photos and court documents of witnesses who cooperate with the government. The Internet, that great megaphone for the masses, now targets tattletales too.
Whosarat.com was launched by a guy named Sean Bucci in 2004, apparently out of personal rage. He had been indicted in federal court in Boston on marijuana charges based on information from an informant. At first the site was free, but it caught on. Now it charges $7.99 for a week of access or $89.99 for a lifetime membership and a free "Stop Snitching" T-shirt.
"Stop Snitching" T-shirts, DVDs, rap videos and Internet sites are all signs that the criminal underworld's values have gone mainstream, transmitted like a lethal virus through the culture and multibillion-dollar commerce of hip-hop.
As the rap star Cameron "Cam'ron" Giles said in a recent CBS 60 Minutes interview, cooperating with police violates his "code of ethics" and damages his street credibility. As a result, neither he nor his entourage of potential witnesses has cooperated with police investigating Mr. Giles' 2005 shooting in Washington by a presumed carjacker.
Of course, police and prosecutors would like to shut down whosarat.com, if that pesky First Amendment weren't in the way. The Web site claims that it does not condone violence. Yet its home page prominently displays mug shots and bios of its "rats of the week" in a way that all but paints targets on their faces.
According to a recent article about the site by New York Times reporter Adam Liptak, at least one witness in Philadelphia has been relocated and the FBI was asked to investigate after material from the Web site was mailed to neighbors and posted on cars and utility poles in his neighborhood.
The "Stop Snitching" culture is bad, but it has grown in reaction to two other malignant problems.
One is the false testimony offered up by too many witnesses looking for lighter sentences and used much too eagerly by unquestioning prosecutors. The other is a persistent pattern of bad relations between police and civilians in certain neighborhoods.
Arrests and prosecutions too often have been tainted by witnesses lured or coerced into lying in return for lighter sentences.
As stated in "The Snitch Culture," a 2005 report by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, "Snitch testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases."
Even in the small-town neighborhood where I grew up, residents would refuse to cooperate with police if they felt the police could not be trusted. Urban crime declined sharply in the 1990s after cities and towns got a lot smarter about "community policing" programs to improve police-civilian cooperation.
What happens next at whosarat.com depends on how smart police, judges and prosecutors are going to be about the risks it poses.
The Web site's operators could be charged with witness tampering or aiding and abetting criminals, but it would be hard to make the charges stick. The information on whosarat.com is drawn from court documents posted elsewhere on the Internet. The information helps other defendants receive fair trials. Judges are better off deciding in each case whether witnesses' identities can safely be posted anywhere on the Internet or whether they should be sealed legally from public access.
There may be hope for hip-hop too. Mr. Giles issued a national apology after saying in his 60 Minutes interview that he would not even snitch on a serial killer next door. Even the world of gangster rap reeled at that one.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Ellen Goodman's column will return next week.