Well, crap. It turns out I might be a terrorist. I wasn’t aware of this, but then Dave A. sent in a video from Houston’s Make the Call anti-terrorism initiative, and it isn’t looking good.
- I sometimes walk off and leave bags unattended in public spaces.
- I gather information about routines in public spaces, often sending operatives out to stand by entrances and exits. They covertly take notes, and I specifically tell them not to draw attention to themselves. Occasionally they even take photos of the layouts of public places or ask employees detailed questions about the inner workings of the organization. I have cleverly disguised these surveillance activities as sociology assignments.
- I sometimes carry small electronic gadgets that might not be immediately recognizable to every single person sitting at a cafe.
- I get cold easily and often wear sweaters or bulky hoodies in summer, even in Vegas.
- I can be kind of hyper and nervous-acting, which probably makes me “sketchy”.
- I always forget the security code at my friend Robin’s housing complex, so I usually just sneak in behind someone else.
- I have been known to park in prohibited areas.
Watch the video and see for yourself:
This method of fighting terrorism is extremely unrealistic. The behaviors listed in the video are things people do all the time, in a variety of contexts. If every citizen of Houston reported every incident they see that is mentioned in this video, the Houston PD would be overwhelmed and unable to function because of the number of calls they’d have to investigate. I’d have to call the police every time I saw a woman wearing Ugg boots in Vegas, because it’s never cold enough here to justify them.
The video tells viewers not to ignore their “instincts.” But do we have an instinct for detecting “sketchy” people or behavior? Given what we know about stereotyping and selective perception, the reality is that people will view behavior through their pre-existing beliefs. Their interpretations of behavior as unusual or inappropriate will be influenced by how comfortable they otherwise are with the person engaging in it, which is impacted by race/ethnicity, class, and many other social categories. A guy leaving a backpack unattended is scary if that guy has a mohawk or, you know, looks scary and stuff, but when I do it, no one bats an eye. This video basically legitimizes turning anyone who makes you at all uncomfortable in public in to the police, on the argument that you are simply following your “instinct.” When you ask every citizen to become an intelligence agent, reporting every incident they perceive as odd, the result is the increasing stigmatization and semi-criminalization of those who can’t or won’t conform to pretty narrow standards of physical appearance, dress, and behavior.
UPDATE: There’s an interesting discussion in the comments about how you balance the need to avoid paranoia with the fact that, for instance, some rapes on college campuses would be prevented if people didn’t leave dorm doors ajar or let people in without knowing who they are, and that’s a conversation worth having. However, I’m also interested in the issue of feasibility here: If all the citizens of Houston literally did what this video suggests, law enforcement would grind to a halt and response times would slow for everyone.
As for why I sometimes leave bags unattended in public…Because there’s nothing of value in it and I left it on an outside table while I go inside to order, or because I’m gathering a lot of books at the library and I get sick of lugging my bag while I do this and leave it on a table while I go into the stacks, or because I realize I forgot to grab something on another aisle at the grocery store and I run around the corner to grab it without thinking to grab my bag. My point isn’t that any of the things I do are laudable or even smart, but rather that people do these things, sometimes on purpose, sometimes because we get distracted or make mistakes, and it’s going to take a massive increase in law enforcement if we really want citizens to start vigilantly reporting them.
Glenn Toddun — August 23, 2012
I really can't believe what I'm seeing. Every day it seems we move from the reality that I used to know into some kind dystopic, paranoid surveillance society. How can this be stopped?
Anna — August 23, 2012
"I sometimes walk off and leave bags unattended in public spaces."
Why do you do that? Aren't you worried they will get stolen? Do you mean you leave litter lying around? That's not cool. Seeing as there is no good reason to leave behind a bag that you actually need, and people have actually been known to leave diy bombs in public spaces in this way, wouldn't it just be better not to leave bags unattended? I know some douchebags who purposefully and discreetly left a full paper bag in a London metro station not long after the July 7 '05 bombings. The station was swiftly cleared by police, and while it obviously turned out to be nothing, I have no doubt it caused a lot of distress to a great deal of people. But it was ok because they were sociologists/social psychologists. How clever of them. I assume (and hope) you get actual clearance and permission to conduct your sociological research, whatever its nature. I like to think the discipline is past its unethical history of conducting social "experiments" in decades past.
"I always forget the security code at my friend Robin’s housing complex, so I usually just sneak in behind someone else."
Obviously this doesn't pass in high security buildings. But terrorist attacks are not limited to such spaces. As for your normal everyday housing complex, that's a great way to let burglars and people intending to commit crime in. Good for you if you live in a really safe community where buglaries and crimes commited by invaders are extremely rare, but a lot of people are not that fortunate. Those security codes exist for a reason beyond paranoia, I presume. I would never let people sneak in behind me unless they are familiar faces.
I understand that a lot of the behaviors listed could be read as simply being born out of paranoia and discrimination, but I don't understand why taking basic safety precautions is so ridiculous. We live in a world where, tragically, both assault/battery-related crime and terrorism are realities.
Yrro Simyarin — August 23, 2012
"There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them." -- Ayn Rand
She was a huge jerk, but she got a few things right.
Anjin Anhut — August 23, 2012
I'm waiting for the additional Robocop footage and Soilent Green commercial to come... but they don't!
Andrew S — August 23, 2012
And the police are known to sometimes beat first and ask questions later.
Tusconian — August 23, 2012
I'm pretty distracted by the fact that an intelligent, adult woman walks around leaving her personal items in public, and thinks that this is only not suspicious, but on par with "normal behavior" as sometimes wearing a sweater when others are wearing t-shirts. I wouldn't call it suspicious, but I WOULD call it particularly stupid, and not something to brag about.
And I don't know, while videos like these often completely overblow the threat of terrorism, I think your response is actually quite disturbingly dismissive of more common dangers.
For example, when I was 11, I was very nearly abducted off a bus in Las Vegas in July. The only reason it didn't happen was because other adults noticed that the guy was dressed like, well, someone who didn't know what 113 degree weather was. Had he been wearing, IDK, a business suit or a t-shirt and shorts instead of a bulky winter coat, people may not have noticed until something more sinister happened. Someone wearing a cardigan while everyone else is wearing a t-shirt, well, okay. Someone wearing a parka when it's over 100 degrees, especially if it looks like they're hiding something under it? I would assume terrorist, but I would assume "shoplifting" or otherwise up to something.
For another example, there were several (not an isolated incident, SEVERAL) rapes in a specific dorm building on the campus I lived on a few years ago. The rapist (same guy every time, not a student) got in every time (again, repeatedly) by sneaking in behind people at side entrances. I think he was only caught when a former victim recognized him. There were other cases of homeless people sneaking in to sleep in common areas, and constant cases of people sneaking in behind people to steal things.
To chalk these things up to "preventing terrorism" is unnecessarily alarmist and fear-mongering, but to act like the behaviors described are completely normal and that anyone finding them suspicious is just criminalizing nonconformity is just hopelessly naive and really disturbing from the standpoint of a vulnerable person who had been or knows people who have been victimized by people espousing the attitude outlined in this article.
mimimur — August 23, 2012
Indeed. Since these messages are pretty much everywhere, at least in NYC and various airports, it's pretty much grooming people into embracing prejudice. What's more is that it fits other structure to form an image that brings totalitarianism to mind. You're encouranged to rat out the people around you, and the prominen presence of military and police turns anyone into a potential suspect - you're taugt to trust the authority and to be suspicious of the people in general.
mote — August 23, 2012
I have cancer and feel cold all the time. I wear my hoodie just about all the time when it is less than 90 degrees out side. This whole "live in fear" thing is bunk. I refuse to engage in this. This is nothing but a give away to corporate greed and paranoia.
Village idiot — August 23, 2012
I always report the most innocuous-looking person in the area to the police because logic dictates that barring the classic "lone wolf" crazy guy, a real terrorist with significant training would probably never fit a "terrorist" profile. They would spend considerable time and effort trying to blend in so as to make the intended attack successful.
Therefore, the person that no one's looking at, the one who seems like they've gone out of their way to avoid ANY of the warning signs we're diligently watching out for and the one who elicits an impression of unquestioned patriotism because they embody everything America stands for is obviously the most likely terrorist.
That means I usually end up calling the cops to report guys in business suits with hair that's way too short and who look at ease and purposeful as they wait a little too calmly at train stations and airports and such. I've even seen as many as 30 of them boarding a plane at the same time (they were scattered randomly through the line, which seemed suspicious to me). But rest assured I did my sacred duty and called the cavalry to report that group of very suspicious persons and THAT plane never got off the ground. Freedom wins again! What's weird is that this happens every time I try to fly or take a train; so far this year thanks to my patriotic diligence I've grounded 12 flights and stopped 9 trains, saving untold numbers lives; I'm still waiting for my medal...
Oh, and I guess this means the Soviet Menace and the Cold War are far enough in the past for politicians to take a stab at recycling the same old fear-mongering bullshit, hoping we've forgotten and don't notice they're using almost the exact same script
Besides, Freedom is Slavery, and who wants that?
Tanya — August 23, 2012
One more reason to never visit America. This is just... ridiculous.
Firstly, the cafe. Most places like that, you order at the counter and either go back to get your food or sometimes they bring it to you. I would, and do, pop my bag onto a chair before going to order. Why drag it with me? The clothing... again, ridiculous. My SIL regularly wears two more layers of clothing than I do. She's cold damn near all the time. Just because the 'norm' is a t-shirt it's silly to assume anyone wearing more is a potential threat. Same for the guy at the apartment building' who's to say he doesn't live there? Who would really call the cops because he held the door open for you??
Terrorism isn't as big a problem as is being made out here. It doesn't happen every day - even every year - in downtown Houston. This is another example of people being deliberately panicked over nothing.
analog2000 — August 24, 2012
Are we sure this isn't an SNL commercial? I can't believe tax dollars are being used to produce this crap! Meanwhile childhood vaccine programs, something that ACTUALLY saves lives, have been cut.
About leaving bags in public places - it doesn't matter that actual terrorist attacks have been carried out this way. What matters is the probabilities involved. The Madrid train bombing happened once. How many bags were left on the train that year, or even that day? How many unattended bags does the lost and found collect on an hourly basis? So the odds of any single one of those bags being a threat are astronomically low.
I, my spouse, or my kids have accidentally left things behind several times this year. If the bomb squad is called every time . . . What an incredible waste of resources!
Celonie — August 24, 2012
I may be wrong, but the beggining of the video seems to mean nothing but "We are a target because we live the American way of life". I am doubtful that envy can even be listed as a reason for the United States to be targetted by terrorist attacks. The Government's choices are far more likely to be the reason. And I definetely don't like this kind of ad campaigns that strenghten public paranoia, by liberally handing the common people the job of national security guard. The sentence "Don't be a hero" stuck me as such a video has precisely the opposite effect on viewers : people are given the power to take action against potential terrorists. It just doesn't make sense to help a feeling of individual threat spread nationwide, especially in a country where citizens can own weapons.
(I am a French follower, my opinion is influenced by other cultural and social standards than American ones.)
Ami Rao — August 24, 2012
This is getting ridiculous. When was the last time that IEDs were a major threat here in the US? Is the entire Houston anti-terrorism department made up of military personnel?
A few weeks ago I went to the airport restroom after getting off a plane, and wheeled my bag to the side of the airport bathroom...After I exit the stall (about 30s later, this is important) and go to pick up it up I see an old lady standing next to it. She grabs my arm, breathing a huge sigh of relief. "Oh that's your bag! Oh thank god! I was starting to wonder you know..."
The pure fear in her eyes! The cell phone clutched in her trembling hand! The actual physical shaking!
There is a thin line between AWARENESS and PARANOIA and we crossed that line a good while ago.
Ami Rao — August 24, 2012
And I apologize for replying to myself, but I also want to point out the subtle misrepresentation in the video, which has not yet been commented on to my knowledge.
In the video, domestic terrorism is presented as an act largely done against white people and 'mainstream society'....when the reality is that our homegrown terrorists are equally likely to be white males (inspired exactly by fear-mongering like this), preying on BROWN people and a vague concept of the 'arab threat'. Our culture does very little to address this, and videos like this certainly don't help ease tensions....
The Adjunct — August 24, 2012
For me, things were once a little dicey.
During 2004, when we as a society were much more on edge, I was going through chemotherapy. I had a 24 hour chemo pump, which made soft whirring noises and had tubes running to a port-o-cath just below my collar bone. I also had a colostomy, and more often than not a bag bulging with one of two equally unsavory contents. I wore bulky clothes to hide the bag and the pump, and covered my head because my rapidly thinning hair looked a hot mess.
One of the side effects of chemo is that your hands tingle when you wave them in the air, which meant that I habitually clenched them. I suppose I didn't look too happy most of the time since I felt lower than a catfish in deep water. Also, the is a condition colloquially known as "chemo brain" which leads to forgetfulness, which leads to me leaving things places.
I knew that I had to watch it because in my condition, with my barely healed abdominal surgery and an open hole in my side, being tackled by zealous law enforcement was dangerous.
Tusconian — August 25, 2012
The issue with your article, Gwen, and so many of the comments, is that they treat the only option aside from crippling paranoia as hopeless naivete and ridiculous hyperbole or intentional misunderstanding of context. Is this video, and similar campaigns, based in blind fear mongering? Yes. Does that mean that we live in a world where it's at all safe or appropriate to leave personal items lying around and let people prance into our homes willy nilly? No. But the reaction here isn't really to the fear mongering tone of the video, but drawing irrational comparisons and claiming to live in a fantasy world. The video does not advocate calling the cops on anyone wearing a sweater when it rises above 75 degrees, and you know it, and it's very foolish of you to claim that that's what the video implies or will result in. You also seem to know that your appearance gives you enough privilege that even if you were lugging a bomb around in your purse or under your thin cardigan, no one would notice until it was too late, and that would not be true for someone who had a different appearance. THAT speaks a lot more to our political climate than how the "suggestions" in this video relate to sociology professors. On a similar note, a while back I saw a billboard with "if you witness terrorism, report it!" The billboard was conveniently located across the street from a newly built mosque. THAT type of thing is never addressed, just how silly willy bananas these suggestions are when applied to a clean cut, well educated woman in a relatively enclosed social circle who will likely never be stereotyped as a terrorist (or even the perpetrator of less catastrophic crimes, such as theft, rape, murder, etc.).
And when people start responding to videos like this with "I'd rather be blown up than be paranoid" or claims that this alone will turn us into a totalitarian state, I wonder not for the political climate of the country, but for a country that seems like it can't intellectually comprehend shades of grey. It's either "we're all going to be blown up, call the police on everyone" or "these clearly criminal behaviors are not dangerous, everyone who is afraid is paranoid and brainwashed and Nazi Germany is right around the corner." Never "maybe we should be cautious but not overblown." Why is it so difficult to point out that campaigns like this have had ups and downs (bombs HAVE been reported, in the US and other places, and de-activated by tips of abandoned packages; but they also tend to attract those who will single out specific demographics unfairly while ignoring others)? Why do discussions like this always boil down to "IIIIIIIIIII have never lived in a place where I can't leave my car unlocked and running with my baby and my 1000 dollar laptop and the Heart of the Ocean alone in it, so anyone who finds it odd that I do is crazy and paranoid, or must live in a third world country where crime is the only occupation?"
TMK — August 25, 2012
Hilarious video. The first part especially, i almost choked on that propaganda. I sort of expected the line from ST to be spoken any moment :D
"Would you like to know more?"
And the closed buildings is so much bullshit. It's mostly to prevent homeless and other "undesirables" from accessing.
missdisco — August 25, 2012
yeah, and recently in the uk there was a panic on a coach because someone mistook an electronic cigarette for a bomb. http://www.metro.co.uk/news/904371-m6-toll-coach-terror-alert-caused-by-electric-cigarette-on-megabus
There's being alert... and then there's that.
Anthony Tantillo — August 27, 2012
"However, I’m also interested in the issue of feasibility here: If all the citizens of Houston literally did what this video suggests, law enforcement would grind to a halt and response times would slow for everyone"
You're a really shitty sociologist if you believe this. If all the citizens of Houston literally did what this video suggests, it would be a cultural norm and no one would think twice about it. What the fuck.
The Scienceblogging Weekly (August 26th, 2012) | Breaking News Today — August 27, 2012
[...] Anti-Terrorism Campaigns and the Criminalization of Public Non-Conformity by Gwen Sharp [...]
Chantilly Patiño — September 6, 2012
This is definitely disturbing. I think for the exact point that the author makes...it's too generalized. Overall, I believe that if you're going to prepare individuals to act against dangerous situations, it has to be tempered with actual knowledge...which this video doesn't really offer. Instead, it's a generalization of statements about 'terrorism' from the typical post-911 viewpoint. It definitely preys on the fears that mainstream Americans already have about terrorism by making terrorism a DAILY risk in our lives. The reality is that terrorism is very rare in the larger scheme of things and it's not necessary something that an uneducated citizen can prevent by upping their 'awareness' of 'unusual' activity. Yes, it's good to be aware, but if we really want to help Americans identify risk factors, we need to educate them correctly instead of generalizing to the point that it 1) Puts other Americans under suspicion without warrant due to profiling and 2) Puts us in a constant state of fear.
Overall, the video just had an awkwardness about it. This totally did remind me of the old Cold War videos...lol. It was ridiculously unhelpful and only served to freak people out and create a system of fear and finger-pointing that furthers stereotyping. It kind of had a "They're after us" quality to it that made it especially disturbing.
This video [ http://youtu.be/_kKkY5EpVpY ] seriously shocked me! Absolute HATE SPEECH and yet, it was sent to me by a fellow Christian who questioned my "allegiance" to my faith when I commented that it was hate speech. While it's more underground in the video shown on Sociological Images, they're still demonstrating that "us vs. them" mentality that furthers hate. They may not point out who "they" are in the video from Houston officials, but I think we can all be pretty sure who the American public believes "they" are.
Antiterorističke kampanje i kriminalizacija nepokoravanja normama » Centar za društveno-humanistička istraživanja — November 7, 2012
[...] Sharp na thesocietypages.org piše o novoj antiterorističkoj kampanji u SAD-u pod nazivom Make the Call, odnosno Nazovi, koja [...]
Watch out for terrorists! There’s one right behind you!!! THE THREAT IS REAL!!!!!!!111 | The Prime Directive — May 15, 2013
[...] to Sociological Images. The post they wrote is also excellent. (this link was chosen by myself before I stopped reading [...]
Heather Mash — June 28, 2014
Me thinks that this individual is trying too hard to oppose and confuse others with much ado about nothing and getting attention for it.