So I saw something. And I tried to say something. And it was just too hard, so I gave up.
I’m not going to name the airport, but many of you have flown through it. You have to catch a shuttle between terminals. The shuttle goes across the (very large) flight line, so you don’t have to pass through security again.
As soon as the door closed on the shuttle I was riding, a middle aged man in a business suit and long curly hair took out his phone and began taking a video. He took one long, running shot that panned around the inside the shuttle, filming every passenger and every seat. Then, keeping the camera rolling, he panned outside the window. As the shuttle passed closely behind wide-body jets, he bent over, filming first the baggage carts and handlers, then up into the cargo holds as the bags were loaded. He filmed the undercarriage of each aircraft as we passed by – the wheels and the wheel wells above. He filmed vehicles on the flight line, and the uniforms of people driving those vehicles. As we approached the destination terminal, he took one more long sweep around the inside. As his lens passed where I was standing with my bag, I gave him a salute. Not the kind I learned in the Army – the kind I learned driving in New Jersey. He didn’t seem to notice. He was focused on filming the door as it opened, and the process of passengers filing into the new terminal. Then he turned off the camera, put it in his pocket, and entered the terminal, too.
“See something, say something!” I thought. So I followed closely behind and started looking for someone to whom I could “say something.”
I pondered quickly what I was going to say. I decided to say exactly what I had seen – somebody doing something very unusual and potentially dangerous – and nothing else. I would let the cops sort out what to do with that information.
Except there were no cops. No security officers. No airline employees in coats who might be managers with an idea of what to do. Just harried gate agents trying to get passengers on board the next flight. Would they know who to contact if I broke to the front, and angered everyone standing impatiently in line by saying, “Hey, that guy just took pictures of the flight line!” What guy? He was walking fast.
So I looked for a security phone, with a direct line to someone who would care that I wanted to “say something.” Nope. No signs with directions or phone numbers, either.
We had entered at the far end of the terminal. At about the midpoint, as we passed the exit for baggage pick up, he turned his head and glanced back. He saw me keeping pace several yards back, so he spun quickly to the right and stopped at a kiosk. I looked straight ahead, and kept up my pace, but stopped at the next kiosk, moving around it until I could watch him approach. He passed me walking briskly again. I swung in behind and fumbled for the camera on my phone. I walked faster, and as I passed him on my left, I tried to shoot a picture with my right hand. It was not a good shot – it only caught the back of his head.
But at the sound of the camera, he spun hard away from me and sprinted toward an exit into the concourse. Not to the baggage claim – we had passed that – but out into the crowd. The crowd was thick. I couldn’t follow.
I looked around one last time. I had seen something. I wanted to say something to somebody. Anybody. I walked to the only person who was there day after day and might have a clue about what to do – a lady selling pizza from behind a counter.
“Hey,” I said. “What do you do if you have an emergency here?” She looked at me blankly. “I don’t know” she answered honestly. She paused. “Call 911?”
As I turned back toward my gate I pondered what I would say if I called 911 and got the perpetual response: “Is this emergency?
“Not yet,” I thought. “Not yet.”
I have been writing, thinking, and teaching about homeland security since 1999. I have heard people in authority preach “See something, say something” a thousand times. But if I can’t figure out what to do at the moment of truth, what chance does an average citizen have?
And if those authorities are not going to give us a way to comply, why keep repeating that empty phrase?
And why actively demonize anybody who complies, like school officials who saw something apparently designed to look like a briefcase bomb, carried to school by someone who looked like the last three dozen guys who tried to kill us. Too bad he didn’t dress like a nun. That way we could have called a SWAT team without being berated by the President or threatened with prosecution by the Attorney General.
Actually, I think the phrase “See Something, Say Something,” is a good one. After every major event – to include school shootings and real workplace violence – somebody says, “I knew something was wrong with that guy. I just didn’t want to make trouble for anybody.” Fortunately, authorities are helping us all stay out of trouble, by making sure that if we decide to talk, we have no idea who to call.
Fixing that won’t be easy. Open up a national tip line and it will no doubt be swamped by crank calls and people reporting their neighbors for loud noise. But tip lines also work. Law enforcement just has to sort through a lot of alluvial wash to get to the few flakes of gold. But that is the whole point of the See Something, Say Something campaign.
Working together more than a decade ago, the FBI and DHS published a helpful (if too long – 47 pages – and too technical) guide explaining what sorts of things citizens ought to be reporting – indicators that a person was recruiting terrorists, supporting them, or communicating with them. Perhaps they could update that, shrink it to a useful size, and post it where we would see it at public locations and likely targets, like airports, malls, and sports stadiums. Maybe they could create a universal Say Something Line (maybe an 811 number) that rings locally no matter where you are when you call. And maybe they could use automation and vetted contractors to sort through the chaff for the grains of wheat.
That might make it worth our while to Say Something, if we See Something – if we knew somebody would actually Do Something as a result.
By the way . . . every word of the story above is true.