If You See Something, (think hard before you) Say Something

The Department of Homeland Security created a national campaign called, “If you see something, say something.” The purpose is to, “raise public awareness of the indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crime, as well as the importance of reporting suspicious activity to state and local law enforcement.” The goal is to keep the nation safe. Police can’t be everywhere so they expand their surveillance by borrowing the eyes and ears of the general public.

This is similar to the neighborhood watch program, “Bringing citizens together with law enforcement to deter crime and make communities safer.” Are these systems perfect? Of course not. Mistakes will be made on occasion. These take two forms. Errors of commission are over-reading a situation, leading to an unnecessary arrest or detention. Errors of omission are the opposite, assuming an activity is harmless when in actually it is criminal or dangerous.

Teenager Ahmed Mohamed, in Irving, Texas, brought a “home made” clock to school to show his teacher. His teacher was concerned that it might be a bomb.

See something, say something.

It turned out to be the components of a clock that the teenager supposedly built. Whether he built it or simply took a commercial clock out of its case is up for debate, and not relevant to this discussion. A bomb expert would easily know that Ahmed didn’t build a bomb, but not too many high school teachers are bomb experts. Look at this photo of the clock

and compare to this photo of an actual bomb.

On careful examination the differences are fairly apparent. But how about during a quick glance in the classroom?

The knee touching the ground before the football crosses the goal line might be obvious after watching multiple replays from 15 different angles, but not so obvious to the NFL referee watching the play live from a distance. No instant replay cameras in Ahmed’s classroom. The teacher made a judgment call, the “clock” looked suspicious. Turns out it was an error of commission. Suppose it was a bomb and the teacher missed it, an error of omission, and the blast killed the teacher and dozens of her students? The teacher, concerned more about the safety of her students and the entire school, made the call.

See something, say something.

Could the police have handled the situation better? Sure. Were handcuffs necessary? Probably not. Was questioning Ahmed appropriate? Certainly. Did he need an attorney present? No. How many of us during our school years were involved in mischief, and questioned (more like interrogated) by teachers or the principal? Without an attorney present.

Over and done. A misunderstanding. Ahmed was rewarded with invitations to the White House and Facebook headquarters, and a bunch of goodies from Microsoft. What if he tried bringing his clock to the White House or some other federal office building? Would the Secret Service pass it through the scanner without any further scrutiny? How about through airport security? Anyone want to try that experiment and see whether you end up in a detention room like Ahmed did?

Compare and contrast to the 7-year-old boy who chewed his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and said “bang bang”? He was suspended from school, not invited to the White House or Kellogg headquarters.

Immediately Ahmed’s detention was blamed on Islamophobia. Understandable given the long list of past Islamist terrorist attacks. Ahmed’s school is in Irving, Texas, about 25 miles from Garland, Texas where a radical Islam inspired shooting took place just a few months ago. Might Ahmed’s teacher and local police be thinking about this?

See something, say something.

Would the teacher’s reaction have been any different if Ahmed’s name was Dylan and he had confederate license plates, bringing a similar electronic device to school? Meaning Dylan Roof, perpetrator of the Charleston church shootings. Any white kids want to wear a confederate flag or tea party shirt to school and bring a disassembled clock and see how quickly they are detained and the school locked down? And without concern from President Obama.

What if someone saw something strange about Dylan Roof and notified the authorities? Nine people would be alive today.

See something, say something.

Remember the Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hasan? Fellow classmates did “see something, say something” but political correctness stifled their concerns. Even his superiors had concerns, but were discouraged from speaking out.

Don’t forget neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, seeing someone suspicious in his neighborhood, calling the police, following the suspect who then turned on him, resulting in a needless death.

The lesson is that one must be “politically correct” in their observations and warnings. Meaning think long and hard over the backlash if you “see something, say something” against anyone covered under the PC umbrella. Meaning those of particular religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin. When our national safety is dictated by political correctness rather than common sense, we are all in more danger. So when you see something, think long and hard before you say something.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based retina surgeon and writer. Follow him on Facebook  and Twitter.