In a time when the Trump administration seems to thrive on paranoia and xenophobia, the “See Something Say Something” campaign is not doing us any favors.
The campaign, which has become nearly ubiquitous in post-9/11 America, was thought up the day after the attacks, according to The New York Times. By 2003, the phrase was everywhere and it’s been trademarked by the transportation authority.
It’s been more than 15 years since the 9/11 attacks but the phrase is still widely used. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the purpose of the campaign is to “engage the public in protecting our homeland through awareness-building, partnerships, and other outreach.”
But in reality, the slogan has nearly the opposite effect. It has made the public increasingly paranoid and encourages people to engage in racial profiling to look for so-called “suspicious” behavior. It’s this exact attitude that led to an anonymous call to notifying officials of a 14-year-old boy Ahmed Mohamed and clock he had made, which was merely a science project. He was given the moniker of “Clock Boy” and even received a shout-out from president Obama. The attitude inspired by “See Something Say Something” had made someone so crazy that they were willing to report a child.
It’s this same attitude that was hilariously mocked in 30 Rock’s episode “Somebody to love,” which aired in 2007. In the episode, Liz Lemon becomes increasingly suspicious of her middle eastern neighbor. After seeing “See Something Say Something” ads in the city, she decides to call Homeland Security on him and they proceed to torture him. It turns out he was not a terrorist, of course, and was merely taping an audience for The Amazing Race.
The episode is a joke of course, but it draws on some very real truths. “See Something Say Something” makes it seem like it’s the “American thing to do” to report on your neighbors. And while they never out rightly say to target Muslim Americans, that’s clearly the underlying message.
Yes, we all know we’re living in a post-9/11 world. But we don’t need an omnipresent campaign to remind us of that. In a time when xenophobia is being lauded by our president and anti-Muslim rhetoric is reaching an all-time high, it’s time that we rethink what we’re doing to encourage that.