Here’s the setup: A beautiful, well-dressed young woman—possibly a member of the country-club set—leaves a taxi and enters a train station. Meanwhile, the taxi driver, a young blond man, gets out and opens the vehicle’s trunk. Inside the crowded station, the young woman, now talking on a cell phone, places her large purse on a bench and walks away.
Just another of the millions of everyday happenings in the Big City. Ordinary behavior from a taxi driver. Maybe carelessness on the part of the woman. So you might think. But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. These are terrorists. And in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) video described in the first paragraph, both of these Evil Personages are immediately reported to the Proper Authorities by Good, Patriotic Citizens.
According to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, that’s the way it’s done: When you see somebody—anybody—do anything odd or non-standard, it’s just “doing your part” to assume they’re terrorists and run to the nearest authority figure to rat ‘em out.
This is all part of Napolitano’s campaign “If You See Something, Say Something.” The campaign consists primarily of short public service videos. The videos play at Walmarts and sports arenas, among other venues. They consciously aim to alarm Joe and Josie Everybody and get them to call the federal government any time they spot their fellow citizens doing anything even slightly unusual.
The “See Something, Say Something” videos are stupid. They’re a pointless waste of tax money. They’re so blatantly wrongheaded I’d like to laugh at them—except that their underlying purpose is so insidious, so Orwellian, they’re clearly no laughing matter.
First, the DHS and Napolitano have a strange notion of who’s likely to commit terrorist acts. All the simulated “terrorists” on these videos appear to be solidly middle-class individuals. They’re predominantly white, well-dressed, well-groomed people you wouldn’t look at twice. Few are members of any racial minority.
Come on. Are we really supposed to believe that ladies of the country club are suddenly going to start planting bombs in public places? I mean, it’s not impossible that Martha Stewart would leave a bomb in a train station. It just seems so unlikely you have to wonder why Napolitano and friends encourage us to watch for it.
In fact, you’d get the impression from these videos that the Department of Homeland Security believes that the only people who would never become terrorists are Arabs.
Napolitano offers an explanation for this seeming inconsistency. DHS, it seems, is “ensuring that the civil rights and civil liberties of persons are not diminished by our security efforts, activities, and programs.”
In other words, DHS officials know that if their videos showed swarthy young brown men as villains, drunken sports fans and Walmartians might start tackling perfectly innocent Sikhs, Hindus, peaceable Muslims, and virtually anybody else who is of the tan persuasion or wearing “furrin” garb. They’d be encouraging the kind of ignorant, hysterical attacks on “foreign-looking” people that marked the months after 9/11.
But as laughable as it is to ask us to report mad-bomber soccer moms, the answer isn’t to switch to a video series showing young brown-skinned men—the vast majority of whom are simply going about their days exactly like everybody else.
Let’s get real. Reasonably intelligent individuals who spot truly suspicious activity will take action on their own. They’ll pull out their cell phones and make a report. They’ll observe the situation and do what their own judgment tells them is appropriate. They’ll do it without being propagandized by creepy videos or slogans. Will they err sometimes? Of course. But erring on the side of good judgment beats erring on the side of government-whipped hysteria.
The DHS videos have little or no purpose in combating terrorism.
But they do have a purpose. And the fact that they feature the most ordinary-looking people isn’t just PC-driven bad casting.
That witty observer H. L. Mencken would have understood the real purpose of these ominous little clips even though he lived decades before their time. He said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
Mencken penned that little aphorism a long time ago. But Napolitano and company have sure been giving it a shiny new coat of paint lately. Yes, of course terrorism is real. And it kills people. But lightning is also real and deadly and, even after 9/11, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than by a terrorist act.
No, the object of these videos isn’t to get you to spot those rare terrorists. It’s to encourage you to spy on your neighbors, no matter their ethnicity, intentions or lifestyle. The DHS wants to enlist an army of helpers so it can watch everybody. Everywhere. At all times.
Perhaps one of Napolitano’s minions saw old newsreel footage of East Germany and didn’t realize it was supposed to be a cautionary tale.
Maybe you need to be of a certain age for all this to sound familiar. In the 1960s, one of the ways we knew that the government of East Germany was not an improvement over that of the U.S. was that the State Security police (STASI) employed hundreds of thousands of informants. These people all busily reported on their friends, neighbors, relatives, and co-workers and ensured that no citizen was ever free from some level of surveillance at any time lest they become an “Enemy of the State.”
This did not measurably improve the quality of life of the average East German citizen—which might explain that big wall that used to stand in Berlin.
Nothing like that could ever happen here, right? We have been assured of that for decades, over and over. Yet somehow we’ve ended up with “See Something, Say Something.”
In other words, unlike the venal and vicious East German Communists, we don’t have Enemies of the State here in the United States—we have Terrorists. And they’re everywhere. Remember, we’re talking about a security apparatus that considers us terrorists if we speak rudely to politicians, quote the Constitution or Bill of Rights, ask a police officer on what authority he stopped us, or fit the vague description of “lone individuals”—particularly “lone individuals” who have “paramilitary training.”
So anybody could be a terrorist, you see. The copier repairman, the taxi driver, that lovely lady in the subway station! Watch everybody! Be afraid of everybody! Your neighbors are the enemy. Trust only the federal government!
The waste of it. The time, money and talent that went into making these absurd, offensive little vignettes could have gone toward ferreting out real terrorist cells, if there are any to find. And what if there are? Does Napolitano believe that if bombs really start going off we’re going to thank her for misleading us down this Orwellian road instead of finding them?
Keeping people scared and suspicious of one another is not a path to security, no matter how you define that word. Do neighbors spy on each other for the government in well-functioning societies? They did in East Germany. Oh, look! East Germany isn’t there any more. Another cautionary tale. That’s what happens when you encourage the worst sort of people to do the damnedest sort of things, then expect everybody to get along well enough to be productive. Eventually, the State crumbles. Funny sort of security Janet’s got there. All you’ve got to do is dumb people down until they’re ready to swallow dreck like this.
How about we inject a little sanity instead? America is not in the same position as London under the Blitz—we don’t need to tape up the windows and pull the blackout curtains just yet. Loose lips haven’t sunk ships in quite awhile.
So relax. That pretty lady in the taxi isn’t likely to blow up the train station today. But you might want to tell her she forgot her purse. That would be neighborly.
Then if she runs, maybe you should too.