I recently decided to tackle a home improvement project that had lingered on my to-do list since spring. Like many do-it-yourselfers, though, I underestimated what it would take to get the job done. It took me four trips to the big-box hardware store to have all the tools and supplies I needed.

But those trips weren't wasted. They caused me to think about what it means to be a member of my community -- and what being a citizen is really about.

That's because each time I ventured out to get that one tool I was missing, I passed under a large sign on the Beltway.

"Report Suspicious Activity," it read and gave a toll-free number.

The sign didn't make me feel safer. In fact, with each successive trip, I became more unsettled.

Who in my life was really trustworthy and who might represent a threat to me and my family? Like Inspector Clouseau, I began to see a burglar behind every tree.

But in a post-Sept. 11 world, is that bad? The sign might mean that law officers are being alerted to malevolent people capable of inflicting real harm -- nothing to sneer at. But the sign also could have unintended consequences.

"Report Suspicious Activity."

That message fosters the erosion of trust, confidence, tolerance and compassion -- the glue that holds our communities and neighborhoods together. It undermines the essence of what it means to be a participating member of society, what it means to be a citizen.

Theodore Roosevelt once wrote: "The first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight." The sign on the Beltway flies in the face of that prescription for effective citizenship. It doesn't urge us to pull our weight; it directs us to pull each other down.

Roosevelt's tenet was that good citizens contribute to community life. Through their actions, they accept responsibility for their neighborhoods and what transpires in them. Citizens are involved and constructively engaged. They know the neighbors and their kids. They know who is moving in and who is moving out. They care about the "broken windows" -- the trash in the streets, the drugs in the alleys and, yes, the possibility of terrorists living next door. But they don't need a sign to tell them the right thing to do.

"Report Suspicious Activity."

The message doesn't foster sound citizenship in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition. It encourages the opposite. The message, with its associated meanings, can weaken us as a community, as a society, as a nation.

Let us defer to Teddy Roosevelt and make an effort to return to a time in which we all knew each other; in which our kids played in the streets, safe in the knowledge that they were being watched -- not by those who were "suspicious," but by those who cared. In doing so, we will create not only a greater quality of life in our communities but a more effective weapon in the war against terrorism.

"Pull Your Weight."

That's the sign that we should be hanging over the Beltway.

-- Robert Mathias