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"See Something, Say Something" Goes Both Ways

When I started working as a public affairs specialist at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, our message was nonstop “stop terrorism.”

It was 2005 and people were still very shaken up after 9/11. I remember we spent a great deal of time trying to reassure people that we had robust security measures in place. We had a system, and so we were able to avoid the economic disaster of literally having to open up every single commercial cargo container as it arrived here.

Even the CBP officers were terrified. They feared being “the weakest link.” They would say things like: “I have nightmares of being the one who didn’t catch the next 9/11.”

Every outreach campaign I worked on felt hugely important. I worked on the effort to end human trafficking at the southern border. A brilliant colleague made up the tagline: “Death Is Not The Way To Save Your Life.” Together we made the posters.

The effort quickly caught fire among all the different agencies who touched this problem. Today you can find the DHS’ current incarnation on their website; it’s called the “Blue” campaign.

The State Department also issues its important Trafficking in Persons report annually, and hopefully the government does more; I don’t pretend to be aware of everything.

But one thing I did learn from working on the campaign, and later on as an activist against sexual abuse in religious communities, is that there is no “bogeyman” in the closet you can blame for such crimes. Meaning, it is often the very people you wouldn’t suspect–the educated, wealthy, and influential–who are actively involved.

Which brings me to the second DHS campaign that changed my life. I didn’t think of the tagline, but to this day I think it is the best social marketing campaign in history: “See Something, Say Something.”

The concept is that we must all share in the responsibility of protecting our Nation against terrorism. We’ve all seen or heard language to the effect: “if you see an unattended item, report it.”

And I’ve done that.

But “See Something, Say Something” is a much larger concept than simply calling in strange packages. And that is what makes it so powerful.

It is the idea that fighting terrorism–fighting crime, generally–is not only the responsibility of “other people.” It’s actually our job, as citizens, to partner with law enforcement and be their eyes and ears.

Community watch is a very old concept, and it’s lasted because it works. We need law and order, not vigilante justice, but the police rely on us as well.

  • It is the community that teaches its children respect for the law. 
  • It is the community that identifies individuals who are engaged in behavior that seems odd, suspicious, that might be putting other people at risk.
  • It is the community that hears things which might make the difference between criminals–and gangs–operating unchecked, and putting them behind bars where they belong.

The reality is, without the community it’s almost impossible for law enforcement to do an effective job. We’ve seen that over and over and over again. With the ubiquity of social media, the tools of reporting are accessible to most, incredibly efficient and free.

So law enforcement is a partnership. That’s what “See Something, Say Something” means.

But there is a flip side.

When law enforcement is provided evidence of a crime–particularly a crime as heinous as child sex trafficking, as in the case of “Pizzagate,” it is their responsibility to communicate openly back with the community.

It is the responsibility of law enforcement to say: “Send us your tips.”

To say: “We have received your tips on this issue and we’re working on it.”

To say: “Here’s an update on the situation.”

It is not okay to operate in total silence, to leave the community guessing as to what is going on or worse, to label decent people in a negative way for trying to do their part as citizens.

All opinions my own.


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