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The Boy Who Cried Terrorist

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The Department of Homeland Security started a campaign a while back that will let people report suspicious activity to the authorities. The catchy slogan they came up with is “See Something, Say Something”. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your nervous system. At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom.

Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your nervous system. At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom.

This program has its time and place. There are times when you see something going on that you definitely should say something to someone. Say, if your neighbor is buying fertilizer by the pallet. And he doesn’t have a garden because he lives in an apartment. And he drives a box-type truck. You might say something about that.

But what if your neighbor is a doctor, who just happens to be a darker shade of tan than you and isn’t a very friendly person? Is that someone worth reporting?

The answer is apparently yes, if you’re a police sergeant.

The ACLU recently dug into some reports made to the Central California Intelligence Center and the Joint Regional Intelligence Center.

Here are a few summaries of the reports:

  • “Suspicious ME [Middle Eastern] Males Buy Several Large Pallets of Water”
  • A sergeant from the Elk Grove Police Department reported “on a suspicious individual in his neighborhood”; the sergeant had “long been concerned about a residence in his neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly”
  • “Female Subject taking photos of Folsom Post Office”
  • “An identified subject was reported to be taking photographs of a bridge crossing the American River Bike trail”
  • “I was called out to the above address regarding a male who was taking photographs of the [name of facility blacked out] [in Commerce, California]. The male stated he is an artist and enjoys photographing building[s] in industrial areas … [and] stated he is a professor at San Diego State private college, and takes the photos for his art class.”
  • “I observed a male nonchalantly taking numerous pictures inside a purple line train [in Los Angeles County] … The male said he was taking pictures because they were going to film the television show ‘24’ on the train next week.”
  • “Two middle eastern looking males taking photographs of Folsom Dam. One of the ME males appeared to be in his 50’s”
  • “Suspicious photography of the Federal Courthouse in Sacramento”: an “AUSA [Assistant United States Attorney] reported to the Court Security Officer (CSO) a suspicious vehicle occupied by what [name blacked out] described as two Middle Eastern males, the passenger being between 40-50 years of age.”
  • “Suspicious photography of Folsom Dam by Chinese Nationals”: “a Sac County Sheriff’s Deputy contacted 3 adult Asian males who were taking photos of Folsom Dam. They were evasive when the deputy asked them for identification and said their passports were in their vehicle.

And what, to me, is the scariest one:

“Demonstration Against Law Enforcement Use of Excessive Force”:
“Reporting party received an e-mail that describes a scheduled protest by an unknown number of individuals on July 7, 2012. The information indicates the protestors are concerned about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to downplay the importance of speaking up when there’s something going on that just doesn’t look right. And I won’t want to be the person who has to decide where the line is that you shouldn’t cross and I’m not really sure that line should be drawn in the first place. That gets into the slippery slope territory that I personally think we should try to avoid. I would suggest just using common sense most of the time, but as we all know, common sense isn’t common.

However, I can’t help but wonder if all of this hyper-vigilance will hurt us in the long run. And I don’t mean in a police-state kind of way (although that’s certainly a danger). I mean in the sense that it will make both the public and the authorities whose job it is to check these things out numb to actual instances of bad-guy-isms.

If you work in a factory on an assembly line, odds are you stand there, day in and day out, doing the same thing over and over and over. And it becomes so rote that you learn to hate your job. You go on autopilot, not really thinking what you’re doing. You just do it. Sure, you get the job done, but you’re not really aware and paying attention.

Now imagine you’re the law enforcement officer who has to look into every one of these reports that come in. I have no idea how many they get each day, or how many are assigned to each officer, but the rate of actual terrorism in the US is pretty low, so I’d imagine that job gets really boring really quick. There are only so many times you can go talk to Rashid at the Kiwk Mart before you just stop caring.

The other fear I have with this kind of thing is a resurgence of McCarthyism. While racism is on a (slight) decline and sexual religious tolerance is gaining in the US, we’ve still got a helluva long way to go before we’ll have our shit together. It’d be real easy to harass Mr. Darood through constant reports of suspicious activity, enough that he finally moves his family out of your neighborhood.

Let me sum this whole thing up by saying this: Use common sense. You don’t have to report everything you see – a middle eastern man taking a picture of the courthouse, a black guy walking through your subdivision at night in a hoodie, an Asian guy talking to his friend in Mandarin Chinese. These are perfectly normal everyday activities. Don’t racially profile people based on your prejudices or beliefs.

In other words, don’t be an asshole.



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