Does “See Something, Say Something” Do Nothing?

Illustration by Clay Rodery

The MTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign is one of those fixtures of post-9/11 life in New York. (And beyond: The MTA, which trademarked the catchphrase, has licensed it to 54 different agencies around the world.) The message is a reminder that the threat of another terror attack is real, but it also provides some comfort: Average New Yorkers, by watching each other’s backs, can do something to stop one. But what if “See Something, Say Something” actually compromises subway safety? That’s the argument made by Harvey Molotch, an NYU sociologist with an interest in urban design, in his new book, Against Security. His case against the program breaks down into four central points.

1. It hasn’t helped to catch any terrorists.
A 2008 MTA public-service announcement stated that nearly 2,000 New Yorkers had “seen something and said something” that year, but the only public data on the initiative’s efficacy comes from a Times article from the same year, which reported that in 2006 and 2007 calls to the campaign’s tip line led to just eighteen arrests for offenses such as selling fake I.D.’s, owning unregistered guns, and immigration violations. None of the reported busts was terrorism-related. “There have been no people stopped from doing an act of terror, there have been no people charged with terror through the informants that have come forward,” says Molotch. The street vendor who helped to stop the Times Square bombing in 2010 did so by reporting the smoking SUV to a mounted patrol officer—the danger was unambiguous, and taking action did not re­quire remembering a phone number. (It’s 1-888-nyc-safe, for the record.)

2. There’s just too much weird stuff going on in New York City.
“We have everything,” says ­Molotch. “People lugging their art project around with wires sticking out, people who indeed look Islamic operating counting machines to count their prayers in Islam as they go.” Reports of such harmless goings-on can clog the law-enforcement system and keep officials from investigating serious threats. Molotch interviewed 80 subway workers for his book and concluded that “See Something” would be an even bigger nuisance if MTA staffers didn’t often opt to check out suspicious packages themselves rather than call in investigators. “If they really acted on each of these things, the subway system would come to a halt.”

3. It creates a “Chicken Little” effect.
Encouraging New Yorkers to call in leads that are likely to amount to nothing can cause subway workers to ignore credible threats—too much bogus information makes them dubious. “When people don’t tell the truth about security, when they give false impressions, it’s a real danger to believing in the system when in fact it does tell the truth,” says Molotch. “The people who work in the subway regard most of these measures as jokes having no bearing on their actual practices.”

4. The signs themselves are a safety hazard.
Those “See Something” placards plastered on station agents’ glass booths? They actually make it harder for the agent, a trained professional, to see anything.

An MTA spokesman insists the program is successful, and a valuable part of keeping the city safe. And for all his qualms, Molotch does acknowledge one unintended benefit of the program: New Yorkers now have a better chance of getting back a gym bag or package accidentally left behind when getting off at their stop. “It seems to be,” he says, “that there is actual retrieval of lost goods.”

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Does “See Something, Say Something” Do Nothing?