If you see something, say something: Liveblogging from a lecture about terrorism, security, and visual narratives

When bombs explode in a crowded city street, individuals and governments naturally ask themselves, "Could we have prevented this if we had been paying better attention to people and things that were out of place?" Trouble is, that question leads to a whole cascade of other questions — covering everything from personal privacy to racism.

M. Neelika Jayawardane is associate professor of English at SUNY-Oswego. She's giving a talk this afternoon on "If you see something, say something" and other campaigns aimed at getting average people involved in public security. I happened to be here on campus for a separate speaking engagement and thought this was something that BoingBoing readers would be interested in "sitting in" on, given the recent tragedy in Boston.

I'll be liveblogging this, updating regularly with key points and ideas from Jayawardane's talk. It's worth noting that her perspective is not the only way to think about these issues. I'm posting this in hopes that it will present some interesting information and spark good conversations. If you're interested in engaging with Jayawardane afterwards, she said that you can reach her via Twitter. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to seeing what she has to say — and what you all have to say about that.

The Talk

First thing worth noting: The actual title of this talk — "Extraordinary renditions: imaging, mapping, and immobilizing the lives of others."

"I was trained in literary studies, but I'm really interested in how we read our environments as well as books"

She's particularly interested in the ways that race, ethnicity, and culture play into those readings. Jayawardane is Sri Lankan, but grew up in South Africa. She's never been a part of a dominant culture. Talks about the strange experience of visiting Sri Lanka for the first time as an adult and being, suddenly, the privileged ethnic group.

Advertisements and media make marginal societies more visible. In the wake of 9/11 media created a new fact for terror and gave us all physical signals that we now associate with our own fear of bodily injury.

The image of the "classic terrorist" now means that people monitor their environments for people who fit that image — an action that affects how the people who, inadvertently, look like "terrorists" can move around and engage in their own communities.

Jayawardane sees an increase in "oriental" stereotypes and security-inspired images in fashion magazines happening at the same time. She's showing a Vogue spread that shows a model stripping out of her skirt in front of the TSA.

The images of terror and terrorism have become saturated throughout Western media since 9/11, even in places where you don't expect them, life fashion. Another fashion spread shows riot police groping models who have been thrown up against a cop car in stress positions.

She believes these images have been crucial to incorporating us (the public) into the discourse and process of security and terror post-9/11.

The use of this imagery highlights and encourages our fears and normalizes oppressive levels of security routine.

After 9/11, friends of Jayawardane encouraged her to look "less threatening" in airports, by wearing big hoop earrings and trying to "look more like you're Puerto Rican."

Moustafa Hassan Nasr was abducted by the CIA off the streets of Milan in February 2003. He reports being tortured and was eventually released when the CIA realized he wasn't actually a bad guy. Americans were tried for this crime in absentia in Italy in 2007. Rarely did American newspapers report on this and similar incidents, Jayawardane says.

Visual arts do a better job of shaping our ideas and building propaganda than language does, she says. Human beings are very savvy readers of images. We're being sent these visual signals about who is dangerous, and who is the other. And that ends up controlling the mobility and lives of people the West considers "threatening".

You see a picture of Nasr now, and you create a narrative for him that doesn't necessarily fit with what really happened to him.

The idea of putting a photo on an identity document began with methods of tracking criminals, and cataloging people into ethnic groups for the purpose of apartheid, Jayawardane says.

The more your body is considered "threatening" the more mapping and documenting of your body happens to you as you enter and leave and move about countries. The more you are under public surveillance.

But, at the same time, threatening bodies are "disappeared" into a symbolic, rather than individual existence. Think of the parade of hooded figures in Guantanamo. Those individuals becomes representations of threats to the state, or proof that the state is making you safe, or symbolic representations of the failures and excesses of the security apparatus. Either way, their private selves get erased, she says.

Individual characteristics are lost as they merge into this this strange, threatening, brownish man. "My partner, on a certain day and certain look, could look like one of the 9/11 bombers. And we now conflate that look with danger," Jayawardane says.

Photography and image banks of wanted posters are our sort of medieval stained glass, giving us symbolic understandings of what we should fear and who we should think of as "out of place".

Which brings us to campaigns like "If you see something, say something" that turn up in transport hubs like bus stations, trains, and airports. These turn up more in bus stations and trains than in airports, she says.

Posters encourage you to ask "What's wrong with this picture". They ask you to seek out what you might think of as threatening. To be a good citizen, you have to be a part of surveillance.

None of these things ever tell you what you should be on alert for. So what do we fall back on? What becomes "threatening" to us? Not the big guy with a gun patrolling the Amtrak station, she says. That's the cop. And we've been taught to not fear him. Instead, we revert to the visual training we've been getting from the media for the last decade.

Very similar messages were disseminated in South Africa during apartheid, she says. And it's nothing new in the United States, either. "I got interested because so much of these rules and images affect my mobility and how my identity shifts and changes in the minds of other people."

Now a response from Craig Warkentin, political science professor.

His question: So what? Well, he says, we become unwitting participants in a surveillance state. It does matter, even if you aren't the subject of the othering.

This idea of framing a topic — how we discuss a topic or conceptualize it for ourselves — isn't something outside the norm for political science. People have used framing to help make political change, the same way the visual framing is training us to think of certain people as threatening, but in different ways. For instance, using media and images and story telling to start getting people to think about land mines as things that violate human rights, rather than things that make us safe.

The downside of effective framing: If you can get people to think in a certain way it becomes normal after a while. At that point it becomes something we think of as "natural" and we take it for granted. And people stop questioning it.

To create change, you have to do more than point out that this isn't normal. You have to get people to be willing to accept that it's not normal. "The extent to which othering certain bodies and accepting security state is normal is the degree to which I am concerned about it," he says.

People who are aware this isn't normal will use the people who think this is normal to implement their goals. As long as we believe it's natural, we'll go along with it.

"Be aware of why you do the things you do. Why you think the way you think. That will help you avoid being manipulated."

And now the Q&A.

It is now 4:56 p.m. Eastern, if you have questions about this, post them, and I'll ask for you in the Q&A session.

Jayawardane says she doesn't blame people who look at her and partner in an airport and express fear. They're responding to what they have learned. Interestingly, strangers ask them kind of obtrusive questions about their relationship, and gender roles.

Comment from the audience: "Craig, you're making an assumption I don't think I can accept. Whoever it is who is arranging PR campaign is aware of the fact that it isn't normal. I don't think you can safely say that we are being manipulated."

Warkentin replies: In the case of the land mines for example, we had historical legacy for how those devices were talked about. It was a case of private citizens organizing and intentionally changing the way we talk about it. Political leaders do have an idea of what normal should be — i.e., what normal will help them reach their objectives. There's different interpretations of the war on terror. Normal way to respond to terror before 9/11 was to treat it as a criminal act. You arrest somebody, you put them on trial. U.S. chose to address it in a different way and got us to start talking about it in terms of a war. And that has lots of other baggage that goes along with it. But historically we KNOW that's not the only way to talk about. There can be more than one normal and leaders can choose which normal they push to make their point.

That said, he says, those leaders do sometimes genuinely believe that the "normal" they want us to believe in is the actual "normal".

Question: "I kind of want to flip your normal. As the talk has been going, I've been thinking that it's more an abnormal discourse than anything. We're being shamed into loving our safety. We're told it's abnormal to not be afraid of these people. War was framed as an extreme act of love. Rather than thinking in terms of normalizing, if what goes out is an abnormalizing, is it that much more powerful?"

Warkentin: There are multiple layers to this. Part of the framing thing is that it only works if it doesn't ring true with people. Land mind thing wouldn't have worked if it wasn't something people believed in. You have to use things that connect to people's experience and predispositions.

Jayawardane asks: As you walk through our modern American landscape, how do you experience this? Is it normal for you? Do you question?

Audience question: "I struggle with wondering how people can believe in something that looks so doubtful. Is it not part of the packaging of democracy that you must trust ... even things that become empty? To me, coming from a Soviet background, it's more natural not to trust anything. Marx had the idea that ideology becomes naturalized and that's why you don't question. It's packaged as something sweet and trustworthy the way it is."

I then asked about how we balance that need for skepticism with the black hole of conspiracy theories that we can fall into as we realize that we can't trust without question.

Jayawardane: I started reading a book about how conspiracy theories come about and it has to do with knowing that there are things you're not privy to. But you don't know it. But you know something is wrong. That general sense of feeling unbalanced leads people to create platforms on which you can feel like you are stable. Even if it's a false platform, it feels more stable than the place where you know things aren't stable.

There is a place in a classroom to be able to have these conversations. To be able to voice your fears and debate them. To be able to talk about and educate each other on things that could be seen as racist. There are places where you can have productive conversations. But, on the other hand, I don't want to do that job at a faculty picnic or with a stranger in the airport.

Audience member makes an interesting point: When you indoctrinate people to see themselves as an arm of the law or a part of the security state, you create situations like what happened in the Trayvon Martin case.

It is now 5:31 and we've run out of time. Thanks for following along, folks.

• If you'd like to see Jayawardane's slides, including samples of the fashion shoots she discussed in her talk, you can view her PowerPoint through Google Docs.
• You can also read the full notes from her talk.

Image: MTA: Off by a Factor of at Least 10^3, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from carbonnyc's photostream