If you see something, say something.
That campaign, launched in New York after 9/11 and rolled out nationally in 2010, suggests that anyone and anything we see could be out to get us, so our job is to immediately alert the authorities.
What a wonderful way to turn kind, caring citizens into paranoid busybodies who don’t even actually help one another. All they do is call 911 and smile smugly.
“People are submitting thousands and thousands of tips a day,” says Joshua Reeves, author of “Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society.” He has examined these tips, including such gems as these: “Someone is standing next to a water fountain, checking their wristwatch.” “I saw a suspicious person watching her daughter on the playground.” As a result of our being asked to err on the side of extreme caution, says Reeves, “there’s this sort of extended paranoia throughout the culture that everything is a potential signifier of terrorism or crime.”
Consider a sign I saw at a commuter train station last week. It began with the usual “If you see something, say something” but added, “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.”
Ah, but what if you have been primed by years of going through airport security and being forced to ditch your 4-ounce bottle of Head & Shoulders in case it’s a bomb? At some point, our common sense gets corrupted and even the most innocent items and activities don’t “feel right” anymore. So we turn to the authorities.
To Reeves (and now me), this is the one-two punch of the problem: It’s not just that we overreact to innocent “triggers” but that we are told to outsource the solution.
For instance, we have been told to dial 911 if we see a child waiting in a car. This makes us believe that a kid’s waiting in a car for a few minutes is automatically dangerous, even though most of us remember waiting in a car when we were kids. But once again, our common sense has been curdled by constant warnings of the worst-case scenario — in this case, the rare deaths of kids forgotten in cars for hours. So now, if we’re not seeing terrorists, we’re seeing terrible parents.
But here’s the thing. In stories parents relay to me about their coming out of Walgreens only to find someone dialing 911 and screaming at them for “abandoning” their children, the screamers don’t seem to recognize that they had been watching the children. They had ensured no kidnapping occurred (an extremely unlikely crime anyway). They could have hung out for a few minutes, making sure the parents returned, and then said something like, “Hi! Just watching to make sure you got back soon. Your kids are so cute. Have a great day.”
That’s what good Samaritans do. Opening a Child Protective Services investigation on a mom who dashed in to get some Tylenol is what good Samaritans do not do. Yet today’s Samaritans are asked to spy on their neighbors and turn them in.
Reeves has felt this in his own life. He and his wife have four kids, and the eldest, age 7, goes to karate six blocks away. “We would love to be able to send him over there by himself, but we won’t do it,” says Reeves. They fear that a citizen pumped with fear and armed with a cellphone could call 911 to report a case of child neglect.
Usually, this will not happen. But asking citizens to assume the worst at all times is making us paranoid. Asking us to involve the authorities is even creepier. It’s making us forget how normal and nice it is to be kind.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog “Free- Range Kids” and a keynote speaker at conferences, companies and schools. Her TV show, “World’s Worst Mom,” airs on Discovery Life.