If you see something,…

Today’s Bizarro, with a play on the slogan “If you see something, say something”, plus the opposition of PRS see and PST saw, plus the homophony of PST saw (of SEE) and BSE/PRS saw (of SAW), plus the idiomatic name see-saw / seesaw (aka teeter-totter):


(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 6 in this strip — see this Page.)

From Piraro on his site:

Sometime after 9/11 (the infamously tragic one, not the one two months ago) the New York City Metropolitan Transit Agency (the folks that run the buses and subways) started a public safety campaign urging citizens to report suspicious behavior with the slogan, “If you see something, say something”. The campaign was later adopted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and used nationally. A longtime Bizarro Jazz Pickle [presumably Imad Libbus] suggested turning the phrase to what is displayed on the sign above. It made me chuckle, so I turned it into this cartoon. As a tip of the hat to the contributor, I named the sawmill after him.

Two different uses of the slogan. One here:


This is the NYC version, and it (quite reasonably) asks people to report unattended packages, briefcases, backpacks, etc.

And one here:


This is the Homeland Security version, and it asks people to report “suspicious activity”, though nowhere that I have found does the agency explain what might count as suspicious activity. So people plug in their own ideas of what’s suspicious; for many, this turns out to include:

(1) anyone who strikes them as looking Arab or Muslim (few Americans distinguish these, or see any reason why they should), either by physical appearance, clothing, or behavior (saying prayers, for example);

(2) anyone speaking a language that sounds to them like Arabic;

(3) anyone writing in a script that strikes them as looking like Arabic writing.

The idea is that Arabs / Muslims are intrinsically suspicious, all potential terrorists (especially adult men).  So we get airline passengers reporting as suspicious fellow passengers who look Arab / Muslim, are speaking Arabic (or something similar) to one another or on the phone, or are writing something that looks like Arabic script.

At the extreme end of the scale, we get a passenger reporting an Italian-born American economist writing out differential equations. Well, he had a dark complexion (like so many from the Mediterranean basin) and he was writing in a weird script, so he had to be taken off the plane and questioned.

As far as I can see, Homeland Security has done absolutely nothing in the direction of saying, publicly, that Arabs, Muslims, Middle Easterners, etc. are not by definition suspicious, and that using Arabic, in speech or in writing, is not in itself a suspicious activity. (Quite possibly many administrators and agents themselves privately subscribe to the idea that these things are in fact suspicious.)

Meanwhile, a surprising number of Americans seem to find the use of Spanish in public to be threatening, and therefore suspicious.

And, of course, an enormous number of Americans (including a great many police officers) judge a black man walking (or, worse, running, or driving a good car) in a “nice” mostly white neighborhood to be suspicious. By now, I think all of the black male Stanford colleagues that I know personally have been stopped by the police for questioning at least once, some on multiple occasions, and a few subjected to long grillings that they had to endure with subservient equanimity. Sometimes a householder called the cops to report “suspicious activity”, sometimes the cops took this identification on themselves.

I don’t know how these things play out for Turks and Turkish Americans (who are mostly Muslims but not Arabs) or Greeks and Greek Americans (who are neither but are often physically similar to Turks and like Turks, speak a “funny language”, though with no relationship to Arabic). Christian Arabs (about 10% of the Arab population) presumably just get swept in with those dangerous Muslim Arabs, while Indonesians (who are mostly Muslims but “look Asian” rather than Middle Eastern) largely escape suspicion, I assume.

Gay people seem to be reported for “suspicious activity” when they are cruising in public, but otherwise are reported for “offensive behavior”, like public displays of affection. Still, those displays can get you into trouble with airlines (because lots of people object to them) or police on the street.

All things considered, I have a lot of trouble believing that Homeland Security’s hazy SEE/SAY campaign is at all effective in protecting us from terrorism, any more than shoeless airport inspections are. But as a device for demonizing and harrassing certain groups, the campaign no doubt works a treat.

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