Fight terror with plates? Virginia joins the battle


There are all sorts of ways to fight the war on terrorism by essentially doing nothing. For example, if we don't buy illegal drugs, according to an anti-drug organization's ads, our money can't be funneled to terrorist organizations. When we continue to take vacations in the Caribbean, the theory goes, Americans show terrorists they haven't won.

And now, the Commonwealth of Virginia helps citizens counter terrorism, using consumerism to fight the good fight by buying a $25 specialty "United We Stand" license plate.

Governor Mark Warner signed legislation for the new plate on July 24, and its sponsor, Delegate John Welch, said in a press release, "This plate gives every Virginian the chance to join this critical fight and to help prevent future terrorist attacks."

Just how does buying a specialty license plate fight terrorism? Fifteen dollars from every plate purchased goes to the nonprofit Rewards for Justice Fund that offers reward money to "entice terrorist sympathizers to become terrorist informers," according to the organization's website.

The post-September 11 organization, started by cofounder Scott Case, supports an older U.S. State Department program, the Rewards for Justice Program, which has paid $8 million to 22 people since it was started in 1984.

Among terrorists the program has netted is Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Towers.

"Ramzi Yousef is in jail because of this program," says Robert Rummells, Welch's legislative aide. After Yousef's face was splashed on matchbook covers, his neighbor in Pakistan turned him in and received a $2 million reward. The reward set by the State Department for Osama Bin Laden is $25 million.

Tom McFeeley at the Rewards for Justice Fund says the fund has also helped "thwart airline hijackings and saved thousands of lives."

The organization is targeting 30 states to sell United We Stand license plates– Virginia hopes to be the first by having its plates available before the September 11 anniversary, says McFeeley.

So how much will these plates raise? Welch wants to sell 140,000 plates this year; if he does it will make this model the highest selling specialty plate in the Commonwealth.

That honor currently belongs to the Heritage plate, the one with a dogwood and cardinal 391,000 of those have been sold, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. If the United We Stand plate sells that many, it will raise $5.8 million.

Virginia's revenue-sharing license plates, whose proceeds go to support well-meaning organizations, haven't done quite so well.

The biggest-selling of those is the Chesapeake Bay plate. Ranked number 8 in DMV's top 10, it has sold 26,000 copies, raising $390,000 to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

All Virginia universities have specialty plates available for their diehard supporters. UVA fans have bought 4,000, sending approximately $60,000 to their favorite university.

In paying for information, the Rewards for Justice Fund organizers are not worried that they're encouraging a nation of snitches. "In any case where there's a missing girl, there's always someone who calls in and gives false information," says McFeeley. "We have complete confidence in the State Department's ability to process this information."

The ACLU, which has raised objections to the state's issue of "God Bless America" plates, has no problem with the United We Stand plates.

"Programs like Crimesolvers have been around for a long time," says Virginia ACLU director Kent Willis. "As long as it's handled properly and doesn't encourage people to be spies, we've always had programs that pay for information leading to convictions."

Willis is more alarmed about Operation TIPS, which recruits millions of American workers whose jobs take them into people's homes to report suspicious activities. "We have concerns that the government is circumventing the Fourth Amendment to do searches without warrants," he says.

It's too soon to tell if the plates will actually make any money or will instead be a feel-good reaction to the events of September 11. But apparently the flag-waving trend isn't over. So far, 155 Virginians have signed up for the United We Stand plate in its first week on sale.



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