I See Scared People

“If you see something, say something!”

I see it at the airport, at the bus terminal, at the train station. It is painted on the bus (yes, I’ve seen a full-wrap bus ad for it). The DHS tweets it.

Only you can prevent terror attacks!

My fundamental problem with this campaign is that it encourages us to be suspicious of our neighbors. Even if the authors intend them to simply encourage alertness, these messages prime us to view the world through the lens of suspicion.

Given that people are often scared of the unknown, see something - say something seems to accomplish little more than legitimize our instinct to fear and shun anything that’s a bit abnormal or unexpected. Now, with police reports!

The result? Among other things, arresting a kid for liking comic books and making things. And that was the trained experts, the police and school administrators. Why would we expect random civilians to have any more refined of a sense of real threats? Who knows, you might wind up with a drug bust turning up a maple syrup refinery. What happens to life when being unusual gets you raided, arrested, interrogated, and maybe jailed?

What benefits do we reap to compensate for state-sponsored suspicion, doubt, and fear? What cost are we paying in undermined social trust, violation of the fabric of society, for this potential security? How many more problems may go unnoticed because we’re too busy being suspecting our neighbors to get to know them and observe when something is amiss?

If the goal of terrorism is to rip apart a society, to drive it to change by sowing fear, then “If You See Something, Say Something” is a surrender document and vassal pact.

I want a society built on trust, not suspicion. That trust will be broken, but to throw away trust in response to violations is to give up, not work for justice.

And for what it’s worth, I would rather die happy and trusting than live in continual fear and suspicion of my fellow traveler on the bus, the train, the plane, or the planet.

P.S. For more thought on this subject, I’m greatly looking forward to reading Liars and Outliers.