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


  1. Could we have prevented this if we had been paying better attention to people and things that were out of place?

    That tends to look at the symptom instead of the cause, doesn’t it?

    Granted, there’s always going to be people doing crazy shit no matter what we do… but wouldn’t it be wiser if we take a closer look at ourselves as a pro-torture-drone-bombing-resource-exploiting nation?

    Maybe ask what we could do better in our foreign affairs to perhaps lessen the motivations of other people wanting to hurt us?

    Instead, just by saying this many will scream that “I blame ‘merica” and that’s the end of the discussion.

    Sorry, but I’m seeing something and I’m saying something.

     Disclaimer for idiots: I don’t think terror is ever justified.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with trying to push your nation towards being, well, nicer, but what makes you so sure there’s a correlation between US foreign policy nastiness and terrorist attacks on the US? It can’t be a simple relationship because the US has been objectively much more brutal in the past without terrorist consequences.

        1. Your links merely reinforce my point: according to your source there were no suicide terrorism attacks anywhere in the world between 1945 and 1980, yet US foreign policy was worse in that period than it is now. If US action abroad is the cause now, why wasn’t it back then?

          1. US foreign policy was worse in that period than it is now

            You really think so? Prove it with sources. You’re also comparing apple and oranges in many respects. Terror capabilities haven’t always been the same. You can get away with a lot more when the people you piss off are helpless because of dire poverty and lack of access to information, travel, communications, etc.

            Your links merely reinforce my point

            No, they didn’t at all. They showed over and over again that there’s a solid correlation with U.S. foreign policy and terrorism. Not sure how you could have possibly missed that unless you’re trying to do so on purpose for some reason.

            according to your source there were no suicide terrorism attacks anywhere in the world between 1945 and 1980

            That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any terrorism. Did you miss the word “suicide”?

            And, once again, without cherry-picking and selective memory, anyone can see that those articles make clear correlations with foreign policy and terrorism.

          2. For worse foreign policy, see my reply to Antinous :)

            The point about the poverty/lack of resources of America’s enemies sounds like it should have some merit to it. Given the notoriously low tech approach in many of Al Qaeda’s attacks though, I suspect it’s not so much a question of resources as of knowledge, and the Internet is playing a big part in allowing anyone who feels the urge to become an effective terrorist.

            I don’t know why you object to me quoting figures for suicide terrorism rather than all forms of terrorism: of the 5 links you brought to the discussion one is about the counter-productivity of drone strikes and the other four all based on Pape’s study exclusively of suicide terrorism. If you don’t like the data, blame your source, not me.

            As for those counter-productive drone strikes, I agree that they are, as the article suggests, counter-productive. And? Killing civilians from the skies is hardly a new trend. The US and others have been doing it for decades, often deliberately. Why would this constitute a driver for terrorism now that the US is doing so less indiscriminately than it ever has?

          3. For worse foreign policy, see my reply to Antinous

            I have and it was an incredibly inadequate false equivalence to modern foreign policy. The modern “War on Terror” dwarfs those numbers.

            And, once again, you’re comparing apples to oranges anyway because you are dredging up a time where there was no Internet, cell phones or hardly any mass media that reached these victims of deadly foreign policy.

            Do you not see the difference between a peasant in a rice field without access to any communications outside their village to a person in a time with cheap cell phones, Internet and access to mass media? Seriously?

            you brought to the discussion one is about the counter-productivity of drone strikes

            You should have read the article more closely. Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen wrote: “Each time they kill a tribesman, they create more fighters for Al Qaeda.”

            If you don’t like the data, blame your source, not me.

            I blame you for continuing to blatantly ignore the fact that all those sources consistently point to how our foreign policy creates terrorists/terrorism.

            One very extensive study also showed that it’s not religion or “hatred of our freedoms” that drives terrorism, it’s occupation (in other words, once again… our foreign policy).

            What do you suggest is the motivation for terrorism? A harem of virgins after death? Proper research (as I’ve shown you) says NO. It’s occupation. It’s killing civilians.

            Now go ahead and compare modern times to some other time where most of the dynamics are different, but it still won’t change this reality that (in modern times) it’s our foreign policy that drives most terrorism. And, if you really attempt to comprehend my links, you’ll see that.

          4. …yet US foreign policy was worse in that period than it is now.

            That’s not true. In the last two decades, we’ve been operating on the “kill it before it’s born” anti-terrorism doctrine, which has led us to commit innumerable human rights violations and war crimes against populations whom we believe might be future enemies. The result being that we’re acting as a very successful recruiting tool for groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

    1. I was primed for a joke after reading those first three words.

      Point taken, but I haven’t seen NY resorting to the same bag of tricks the KGB or Stasi used to coerce informants.

    2. Do you want to live in a world in which all public policies are binary choices between doing nothing and total surveillance state?

      1. Do the public policy folks give me a better choice? They seem to be hell-bent on total surveillance.

    3. The purpose of programs like this isn’t just to have everybody watching everyone.  It’s to have everyone distrusting everyone, and to have everyone be afraid, so the strong father-figure authoritarian government can “protect” them by having wars against scary foreigners and running “Homeland Security” departments to make sure that scary people here get put in their place.

  2. My policy if I see something, like an abandoned bag or box, is to open it and get it out of the way before anyone notices or starts calling the bomb squad. I get that stuff to a lost and found fast. If I don’t, it will cause a hassle for thousands of people as there will be roads blocked off, subways stopped, etc. It will cause an even bigger hassle for the person who lost their bag for it to be blown up. 

    I’ll take the chance it is a bomb. If you think I’m kidding, I’ve done it 1.5 times already. There was a rolling luggage alone on a crowded sidewalk. I opened it. It was empty. I left it on the sidewalk open and empty so it was no longer suspicious. The other time it was a backpack I saw in the park while biking. As I was inspecting the contents, the owner, who forgot it, came running back from the parking lot and thanked me.

  3. The failure point is “see something”. See what? An abandoned bag or box; sure, that’s pretty obvious. But aside from that? The “person of interest” – found to have no connection whatsoever, aside from just being a spectator – from last night was a brown-skinned guy that was tackled by a “citizen” because he was running from the explosion. Apparently, innocent people don’t run from explosions.

    True security can only be  based on constant, careful monitoring by law enforcement of extremist assholes here – which includes a serious definition of extremists, not the local peace group/book club – and not installing or supporting dictators abroad, or generally f*cking with foreign people because Americathatswhy.

    1. See what?

      The Daily Mail had an article yesterday with a grainy photo of A MAN STANDING ON A ROOF!!! Because nothing says “out of the ordinary” like someone standing on a roof to watch a big public event. Should probably raze the building just to be sure.

  4. There’s an awful lot of attention paid to the weapons used by the bad guy. The Sandy Hook shooting has everybody looking at guns and how to keep them out of the hands of Bad People(tm). The last time Boston was in the headlines for terrorism, they were fighting the Aqua Teen Hunger Force publicity department.

     What I *don’t* hear in the discussion, is what the Sandy Hooks shooter has in common with the Boston marathon bomber, or timothy McVeigh, or the UnaBomber.  It’l like apples and oranges because one used a gun, and another used a bomb, and it’s their weapons we have to engage with, not their common cause.

     I don’t think it’s gun violence that’s the real topic here, or bomb violence. It’s violence. And excepting government sponsored violence, homegrown violent crime is declining, despite what we’re led to believe.

    There is currently a wave of bombings going on in Bagdad, setting the stage for the upcoming election. Are those lives really less important than the ones lost in Boston? Are they really so disconnected? I want to stop letting the newspapers frame this discussion!

    1. I’ve met a lot more people hurt by automobiles (a dozen) than by mass-murdering wackos with guns (one, Unitarian church in Tennessee) or common criminals with guns (one, blinded by ATM robber gunshot).

      The point is, it’s not worth worrying about until it becomes so commonplace that it compares with our everyday violence level.

        1. It’s a matter of proportion. Creating a police state to fight a scourge that kills 0.1% of Americans isn’t a reasonable tradeoff, in my opinion.

          1. Of course it’s not, but it’s not like you’ve just been talking about the importance of not over-reacting, and how headlines don’t mean it should be the important thing for policy makers.

            You’ve been going on threads about people who got killed, all to shout about how much they don’t actually matter. If you think that avoiding the police state means you can’t show any empathy, you’re wrong.

          2. 0.1% of Americans would still be over 300,000 people. I think some overreaction would be understandable in that case. (You would be almost certain to know someone who died.) For a sense of the appropriate scale, the 9/11 attacks killed less than 0.001% of the US population.

          3. NB’s numbers are way off, yeah, but I do think there’s a point to be made about “acceptable risk.” If we were really that concerned about no life being unnecessarily lost, there are many other ways we’d change our society.

    2. >>Are those lives really less important than the ones lost in Boston? <<

      Yes.  For the same reason that nobody cares when a kid in the inner city goes missing, but if a pretty young white girl disappears on vacation, it takes over the news.

      I saw it on TV, so it must be true.

  5. Reasonable vigilance is good, of course; but the problem with this is that if you wield a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.

    I think many people would have a natural reaction to question or report something, if the behaviour was very incongruous or creepy,  without prompting. However, prompting first possibly makes people  more susceptible to make a bigger deal out of activities that wouldn’t normally alarm them- because they’re actually most likely normal. So I think this kind of effort makes communities more suspcious and fearful, not necessarily more observant (in an efficient way). Just my own impression though.

  6. Years ago, just after landing in Israel at 11pm, I was looking for my apartment and accidentally forgot my suitcase on the sidewalk.  When I came back 5 minutes later to get it there were two neighbors and two policemen inspecting it.  Obviously the neighbors saw something and said something.   I think this was quite rational behavior, and I enjoyed the feeling of safety it provided.

    1. Yes, it was quite reasonable, and I saw a similar thing in London. Trouble is, Americans take it to the point where a family’s girl is nearly taken from them by CPS when she’s permitted to walk a few blocks by herself.

      1. Actually, I think the issue is more that we’re not only being encouraged to look for suspicious objects, but also suspicious PERSONS. What is a suspicious person? What do I use to decide that someone is “out of place”, as opposed to something? I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with being like, “Boy, that bag is just sitting there by itself. Better tell somebody about it.” 

        I do think there’s a problem when we start trying to decide whether a person should or shouldn’t be someplace or whether that person is a threat to us. Because those judgements are totally bound up in biases that basically ensure we will ensnare innocent people. 

        1. Biases will always ensnare the innocent, that’s why they are considered innocent until proven guilty. You want to minimize the number of the innocent ensnared, laudable. How much risk should the whole of society bear in order to accomplish this? But why, as a scientist, would you look to the anecdotes and theories of an English professor?? All their jargon and unsubstantiated theories: they are the homeopaths of American academia.

          1. Because not all The Answers™ are found in the “hard” sciences. The liberal arts give us plenty of food for thought, which is why right-wingers want them eliminated.

          2. Some things can’t really be figured out with quantification. These inexact conversations about the things we don’t notice are important. Pretty much any scientist will tell you that the thing science understands the least is people. In this case, it is actually pretty damn useful to call upon the expertise of somebody who studies narratives for a living. 

        2. I’m clinically non-suspicious. I can walk through any security barrier anywhere without even being noticed. I also spent much of my 20s hanging with people on the FBI’s most wanted list for trying to overthrow the US government. Suspicion is not a science.

  7. I imagine that the two types of people in this world, those who aren’t bothered by speaking out in public, and those who don’t feel comfortable speaking out loud, will probably go on being one of the two types of people in this world.

  8. “Very similar messages were disseminated in South Africa during apartheid, she says.”

    I would be very interested to see/hear some of these materials.

  9. if the bag they are showing in the news this morning April 17 (beside the Mailbox?!) on the ground right behind/beside the long line of police and volunteers, and right under the noses of many spectators, DOES turn out to be one of the bombs, then OBVIOUSLY no one is looking at suspicious objects.

      1. sorry to disagree, but it’s been common knowledge and widely accepted that ‘suspicious packages be reported’ at least since 9-11, maybe longer. Suspicious objects (an unmarked bag in a crowded area) are not “only suspicious in retrospect”. That it wasn’t noticed, is what I’m commenting on. I find it VERY odd that no cop (and there were lots right there) looked at that package and thought maybe it needed a further look. (Maybe they did and it was vetted.) I was in an airport in Canada three years ago and there was a bag in an odd place unattended, I reported it and moved to another area. This seems to me to be widely accepted societal behaviour, and not fear mongering. Your comment is sort of trolling, by definition, no?

        1. Um no, not at all. That’s quite the leap to go from “thing I disagree with” to “you’re trolling”. Please simmer down.
          I am well aware that the idea of reporting suspicious packages is nothing new. You’ll note that I didn’t claim it was. What I was trying to point out is that, sometimes, it probably is totally obvious that you should be suspicious of a package. I think most of us would be suspicious of a bag sitting all by itself in the airport without anyone else around it. Heck, my husband and I reported a bag in an art museum in Amsterdam. We saw a guy walk in, carrying the bag, and go right past the ticket counter without paying. Then he came out again with no bag and the bag was left sitting in the gallery. That? Obviously sketchy. (Though it just turned out to be how some homeless guy stored his clothes, it was obviously worth saying something.) But that’s a rather different case from a bag that’s sitting on the ground in a crowd of people at an outdoor event. In that case,  it’s easy to say after the fact that the bag should have been suspicious. But in the moment .. if there’s a person standing in front of the bag and a person standing behind it and there’s nothing particularly weird looking about the bag itself and you didn’t see somebody come by drop it off and leave … it’s perfectly reasonable for most people to assume it belongs to one of the people near it. 

          What I’m trying to say is that it’s not always easy to identify which bags are suspicious until after one of them has exploded. 

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