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‘If You See [blank], Say [blank].’ From something to /something/

Journal of Language and Politics (2022)

Published onFeb 11, 2022
‘If You See [blank], Say [blank].’ From something to /something/


The September 11 terrorist attacks emerged as a turning point on security standards, contouring many aspects of public life ever after. Two decades later, the see something, say something campaign stands as one of the New York City trademarks. Its ubiquity across subway platforms intends to raise public awareness by transferring security responsibilities to the general public.

Language is neither innocent nor merely instrumental, any more than is not neutral. This paper disentangles the construction of something in the current context, where the elusive definition of terrorism has enabled distorted perceptions of risk and certainty. The paper adopts a multimodal critical discourse analysis, focusing on the campaign's use of ambiguity and its lexical and semiotic choices. Ultimately, it intends to crystallize how language resonates with a broader preemptive and never-ending War on Terror rhetoric while paving the way to further analyze the activation of the target of this campaign: you.

Keywords: discourse; War on Terror; rhetoric; semiotics; security; subway


Barrera-Vilert, M. (2022). ‘If You See [blank], Say [blank].’ From something to /something/ Journal of Language and Politics.

  1. Introduction

Over the rush hour mutter, while waiting for a delayed train, rushing up the stairs, or refilling their MetroCards, New Yorkers immerse in an omnipresent see something, say something cadence, one of the most tangible yet subtle changes following the 9/11 attacks that have shaken cross-national and domestic public security policies ever since. 

The security-awareness campaign, implemented by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and licensed to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under a catchy slogan, emerged as an effort to raise public awareness towards any suspicious activity in an emotionally charged context. By 2003, the phrase was on posters and platforms in subway cars, buses, and trains: "It is the I ♥ NY of post-9/11 New York City" (Fernandez 2010).

The inherently unique characteristics of the subway –an enclosed public space with uninterrupted service bringing together a daily average of 5.6 million commuters (MTA 2019) from diverse backgrounds heading to different destinations– make it a potential target for a terrorist attack aiming to maximize the number of casualties, thus becoming a crucial area for authorities to deploy counterterrorism efforts; not just by way of expanding institutions' power and discretion but by transferring security responsibilities to the general public as a form of civic duty.

Interestingly, the same characteristics that make the subway a suitable target for terrorist attacks make it a hypersensitive source of transmission of an uncontrolled virus highly contagious through human contact. The COVID-19 pandemic has established a turning point for fundamental social institutions and introduced a new juncture in the dynamics of the subway, especially in densely populated urban centers like New York City, where the virus hit hard. On May 6, 2020, the New York City subway system shut down its overnight service for the first time since its opening in 1904.

There are often clashes of interests during multi-valent and multi-scale crises that unfold complex dynamics of legitimacy and public attitudes. One such clash regards the community compliance with specific policies put into place during such moments. For example, while the lockdown of the City was generally accepted and abided by New Yorkers as a civic duty to "keep New York City safe," the curfew implemented in response to the protests following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 was generally received with defiance. Such complex dynamics are indexed where signs for free sanitary products to prevent the spread of the virus are visible alongside signs of Black Lives Matter, No Justice, No Peace, and Defund the Police, and where the majority of the protesters wear masks. Thus, while people appear to comply with the restrictions to keep the virus under control and the City safe, they do so while challenging the rationale that the deployment of extra police force aims to protect the community.

As the City reopens, more complex and intricate legitimacy dynamics between old and new policies might unfold, introducing a new dimension in a city shaped by its relentless hustle and bustle and pumped through its public transportation system. More than just a health crisis, the pandemic reflects a collision of security and safety concerns that can have an acute and profound impact on one of the unique spaces in the City that connects New Yorkers across socio-structural lines. The problems will not only be derived on the long tail of consequences of the pandemic crisis, but these will highlight and entangle with security measures that have already shaped behaviors since September 11, 2001.

Although it is essential to analyze how these current crises will reshape security and legitimacy interests, this paper broadens the scope and focuses on the impact of the War on Terror discourse on this particular environment. The goal is to draw back to the original construction of the see something, say something campaign to understand its current implications and unfolding clashes of interests. Specifically, it aims to dig into how the War on Terror rhetoric fills the meaning of something through ambiguity and how this rationale might intertwine with other priorities, unveiling new political and social dilemmas. This analysis will lay the foundation to further explore how the campaign involves citizens and how it activates them to create, reinterpret, and reshape the meaning of something.

  1. The subway as a public policy target

There exists a substantial amount of research focusing on the way politicians define and frame terrorism in the post 9/11 contextthe strategic language to refer to terrorists –criminals, terrorist, evil, combatants, wicked Islamists, fundamentalists, fanatics (Bartolucci and Gallo 2015); the relational networks between specific acts tied to particular actors (Mohr et al. 2013); and the way a series of episodes cascaded and materialized to constitute "9/11" as an event through performative speech acts, demonstrative mechanisms, and representations to advance transformations (Wagner-Pacifici 2010, 2017). However, much less emphasis has been put on specific policies that are direct manifestations of these speeches, which bi-directionally interact with and reshape public consciousness, attitudes, and behaviors. As Fairclough et al. (2011) argue, the discursive event is shaped by situations, institutions, and social structures, while simultaneously shaping them. In this line, this paper aims to analyze an embodiment of the war on terrorism's policy framing that has permeated almost every aspect of domestic and public life: If you see something, say something®.

The interest in this campaign is twofold. First, New York City –the World Trade Center in particular– has come to represent the epicenter of the 9/11 attacks, even if two other locations –the Pentagon (Virginia) and a field near Shanksville in Pennsylvania– were targeted that day. The immediate reaction unfolded with color alerts, strategic allocation of plainclothes officers, armed troops and patrols, technology deployment, and random inspections in densely concurred spaces of the City and the public transportation system (McClain 2012, 51). As Collins (2004) argues, Ground Zero monopolized the status as the symbol of the attacks through a unique magnetism; a magnetism that draws in the second interest. Ocejo and Tonnelat (2014) describe the subway as a unique enclosed public space with negotiated social order and trust among strangers where "the competent rider practices the art of getting along with a mass of others mainly by pretending to ignore them entirely" (Tonnelat and Korblum 2017). This negotiated order among strangers is particularly interesting in the New York City subway, one of the City's most heterogeneous and diverse communities that mingles riders across class and race groups. Even people who live in relatively homogenous neighborhoods, where riders in local subway stations are representative of their residential population, encounter diversity when commuting by train (Ocejo and Tonnelat 2014, 496). The subway becomes a "situational community in transit; a city-spanning public space in motion" (Tonnelat and Kornblum 2017, 8). Even during the pandemic, essential workers primarily rely on public transportation. Its unprecedented shutdown and ridership fluctuations reveal both the vital necessity of public transport for accessing basic needs, as well as the susceptibilities of the arterial system of a City bounded by rivers and bridges.

The subway does represent a unique public space not only demographically but also physically. It configures an enclosed space (mostly) below ground with its own synergies, bounded by elements, limited escapes, and pervasive infrastructure problems. Although airports have been one of the main objects of security studies since 9/11 (see Molotch 2012), security at airports is explicit and tangible at every step –security checks, cameras, X-rays, delimited lines, passport controls, removal of clothes and items. While both airports and stations are examples of transitional spaces of temporary passage, subway security is much more subtle and attuned to people's daily paths when commuting to routine activities such as work, school, and leisure. Even with the implementation of color alerts, reliance on new technologies and random inspections, and the deployment of soldiers dressed in body armor in central stations, these measures appear more subliminal than in airports: we know they are there, but we pass them inadvertently as they do not interfere directly in our way. Over time, they become natural. Furthermore, as Tonnelat and Kornblum (2017) note, in addition to formal rules of conduct, there is an underlying taken-for-granted and trusted social-spatial order "that is automatically generated in arises out of the specific social, material, and physical conditions of the subway" (p.104).

Thus, given its practical and symbolic importance, the subway has emerged as a space of social and political significance, anxiety, and control. This significance is not restricted to New York City. Following the 9/11 attacks, several terrorist plots in transit systems worldwide contributed to framing the backbone of the homeland security system. On March 11, 2004, ten bombs exploded simultaneously on four trains in Madrid during rush hour, killing 193 people and injuring around 2,000, constituting the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of Spain. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks as an act of retaliation for the deployment of Spanish troops to support the war against Iraq. In the aftermath of the attacks, both France and Italy declared a state of high alert. A year later, several bombs were synchronically detonated in three crowded London subways and one bus during rush hour (Cowell 2005). Al Qaeda claimed responsibility. The attacks drove a substantial counterterrorism policy change, embracing the same War on Terror rationale that the US constructed as a response to 9/11. In fact, following the London attacks, New York counterterrorism forces were deployed across the most central subway stations, raising its terrorist alert level to orange (Department of Homeland Security 2017) despite the low risk of an imminent attack against the US. Such action reveals a target hardening strategy based on the subway characteristics as a vulnerable target in itself, an exceptional vital node with particular idiosyncratic forces that do not outspread over other parts of the City.

As Aradau and Van Munster (2009, 694) discuss, the unexceptionality of the enemy and the commonality of the target trigger expansive surveillance across the general population that might lead to the overprediction of threats. Both London and Madrid transit attacks drove a domino effect on security policies in mass transit systems across Europe and the US, introducing more stringent regulations emphasizing security and individual responsibility to report any suspicious behavior under a widespread perception of an ever-imminent terrorist threat (Friesen 2007). 

Lingering on this last point, this paper moves beyond the expansion of formal control and surveillance. It sheds light on a policy that transfers part of the public safety responsibility to the riders in a unique public space where order is anchored on informal social norms and sustained through normal appearances and unfocused interactions. While the activation of citizens to interpret the meaning is the heart of the campaign, this paper focuses on disentangling the construction of something in the context of a never-ending War on Terror.

  1. Materials and methods

This paper aims to get a deeper insight into the linguistic construct and discursive strategy behind and beyond the If you see something, say something slogan. Specifically, it attempts to unravel intersemiotic relations within the sociopolitical context from which the message is constructed; the implicit meaning complexities, dynamics, purposes, and interests behind and beyond the message: how a neutral and ambiguous "something" transforms into something with full meaning and becomes the central signifier of the policy. The analysis reflects through pamphlets excerpted from the DHS website (Department of Homeland Security 2012) as well as a convenient sample of pictures from Brooklyn and Manhattan (New York City) subway stations taken between November-December 2019.

The paper follows a multimodal critical discourse analysis (Machin and Mayr 2012, Gee 2011) and adopts an inductive social semiotic approach, from context to language and from language to context, through different linguistic and visual discourse frameworks. These include the early analytic frameworks developed by Burke (1945) ­to identify semantic and poetic meanings and how ambiguity is strategically used, and Barthes's (1972) first and second semiotic orders, along with more contemporary approaches on lexical, iconological choices, and context (Machin and Mayr 2012, Fairclough et al. 2011, Van Dijk 2008). Essentially, this analysis focuses on specific word choices, sentence structures, and verb tenses to highlight the underlying discourse and ideologies that lie at the implicit level and reveal how the meaning of something resonates with the War on Terror rhetoric. The analysis also addresses the visual elements of the campaign through different frameworks (Berger 1972, Barthes 1972) and critical analysis methods on visual semiotic choices, iconography, and salience (Machin and Mayr 2012) to disentangle the meaning of the message, its sensorial ubiquity, and its forward-looking, conditional standpoint.

With this array of approaches, this analysis is best positioned to illuminate the campaign's texts and images within its context to draw the connection to the broader war discourse where it originated while pointing to its implications amid global health and legitimacy crises. In essence, this paper is interested, not in generalizing the conclusions to other contexts where this campaign might be implemented, but in generalizing the analytic boundaries through which the message unravels.

  1. The construction of something

On its website, DHS (2012) defines "something" as 

Any observed behavior that could indicate terrorism or terrorism-related crime. This includes, but it is not limited to, unusual items or situations (i.e., a vehicle is parked in an odd location, a package/luggage is unattended, etc.); eliciting information (i.e., inquiries at a level beyond curiosity about a building's purpose, operations, security procedures and/or personnel, shift changes, etc.); observation/surveillance (i.e., someone pays unusual attention to facilities or buildings beyond a casual or professional interest, etc.).

Along with its definition, the DHS includes an infographic illustrating prominent indicators of terrorism, as well as a "Pocket Card Printing Instructions" intended to be downloaded, cut, printed, and carried to "Protect your everyday" (Figure 1). Furthermore, the DHS (2012) indicates that

The DHS campaign cannot be used for any purposes besides those related to terrorism and indicators/behaviors that may be reasonably indicative of terrorism-related crime. For example, this program cannot be used by schools for anti-bullying purposes, and communities cannot use it to combat an increase in local drug use (…) the campaign respects citizens' privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties by emphasizing behavior, rather than appearance, in identifying suspicious activity (…) factors such as race, ethnicity, and/or religious affiliation are not suspicious.1

A screenshot of a cell phone Description automatically generated

A screenshot of a cell phone Description automatically generated

Figure 1. Terrorism-related suspicious activity pamphlets. Source: DHS website

Although the "see something, say something" message is palpable across the entire subway system, the unspoken assumption of something rests upon ambiguity. Even though the campaign was launched along with the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI) to train state and local law enforcement to recognize terrorism-related behavior, it remains unclear how the riders, the actual targets of the campaign, are aware and can distinguish between what is a crime and what constitutes terrorism; nor determine whether something is suspicious based on behavior rather than appearance, especially considering that this information is not visible throughout platforms, trains, or vending machines.

Reflecting upon this ambiguity, Tavin (2006, 5) raises important questions: "what is something in an era of permanent war? Who are the potential objects of alarm, occupying the spaces of order or disorder, bearing threat or protection, or suspicion or trust? How do we classify what is safe and what is not to tell the police? Who gets to have more than one point of view when we are all surrounded by new technologies and monitoring devices? Who interprets the visual field when it is under the constant threat of potential terror? How might our own gaze be aligned with the increasing circulation of images and ever-spectacular events, and ever-intrusive instrument and apparatuses of seeing?" Furthermore, what is something in a context where many behaviors are subject to decriminalization campaigns amid current legitimacy and institutional crisis?

These questions are essential when analyzing seemingly innocuous and friendly campaign, but that harbors significant ambiguity. 

  1. From context to language; from language to context

To understand the meaning of something is to understand the political context from which it is constructed. As Van Dijk (2008, 255) emphasizes, context should not be formulated as objective social situations but rather as context models that represent the subjective definitions of the communicative situation and control each participant's contribution to the interaction. In this sense, to unravel the meaning of something, it is essential first to disentangle the elusive way (counter) terrorism is constructed in a context where security has become the keyword of post-September 11 politics (Van Dijk 2008, 204) and where social problems have a long trajectory of being rhetorically framed around war connotations –from the war on crime through the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on terror, to the current war on the virus. 

Terrorism is an elusive and socially constructed term embedded in specific geographical, temporal, and sociopolitical contexts (Bartolucci and Gallo 2015). Hoffman (1998) examines how the meaning of terrorism swings like a pendulum throughout the four waves of terrorism (Rapoport 2004): from positive, to negative, to positive connotations; from state-inflicted terror to revolutionaries to freedom fighters to terrorists. Similarly, Wagner-Pacifici (2010) analyzes how the contours of the 9/11 events changed across time and space: from accidents to incidents to terrorist attacks. As Wagner-Pacifici argues, boundaries operate multidimensionally and dynamically and become fluid, reshaping the events as restless and reconceptualizing its essence of uniqueness. Related to this notion of fluidity and restlessness, the filling of something cannot be understood without what Jackson (2005) refers to as the void of meaning that the September 11 events left behind. As Jackson discusses, the impact of the attacks enabled the government to insert a politically-driven narrative, establishing the grounds and means by which war is fought, that has permeated public understanding, expanding the reach of the interpretations of terrorism and its ramifications on public security and safety: "the war on terrorism is not an objective or neutral reflection of reality; (…) it is a meticulously composed set of words, assumptions, metaphors, grammatical forms, myths and forms of knowledge; a carefully constructed discourse to attain particular political goals" (2005, 2). In turn, the response was neither predetermined nor objective; it was chosen over many other potential alternatives that were suppressed or deliberately disregarded.

Along with Jackson, Molotch (2012, 17) notes that the way 9/11 and its consequent policy have been framed derives from overwhelmingly myopic priorities imposed over other choices, emerging as a competition for the dominance of meaning and a powerful social structure that expresses and co-constructs US interests and identity. If 9/11 shattered the foundational myths of US security culture, the War on Terror was articulated by reinforcing US values.

Moving beyond social meanings and focusing on how initially inexpressible affective responses were translated into political discourse, Solomon (2012) argues that the desire to reconstruct a national subject was evident. The unspeakable and ambiguous affective states following the events soon articulated into attempts to (re)construct a "whole" national "self" shaped through the cultural and political War on Terror discourse: a desire for a complete and unambiguous national subject with which people could securely (affectively) invest –" us," "we," "America" (Salomon 2012, 926); a discourse that has endured long after the Bush Administration and remains vivid today.

Agreeing with Jackson and Solomon, Bartolucci and Gallo (2015) emphasize that alternative interpretations asserting that the war could not be won without tackling the problem of poverty or roots of discontent of marginalization in the Muslim world, or choosing to frame 9/11 events as an international crime or a disaster or an act of madness, were utterly disregarded, choosing instead a framework that facilitated an elusive and porous use of terrorism, allowing war connotations to permeate and triumph. This logic echoes David Gibson's (2012) analysis of the ExComm discourse during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where options became acceptable by prioritizing story-telling through iterative force talking over decisive counter-arguments or factual revelations per se. Both Gibson and Molotch (2012) recognize the articulation of the urgent need to do something –even a wrong decision is better than none at all.

Along with the void of meaning argument, Wagner-Pacifici (2010) stresses the rupture that 9/11 established; a blank slate with no reference points nor names to be claimed. The attacks "pressed at the limits of recognition by constantly shifting grounds, both literally and metaphorically" (2010, 1352), leading to recognition and categorization difficulties. Framing the 9/11 attacks between two opposing fronts –as an act of terror against US values and virtues coming from an evil, brutal, despicable, senseless enemy entirely motivated by hate– has direct implications on the way the US counterattacked and the way this strategy has infused public life; reinforcing a never-ending War on Terror on moral grounds. The definition of terrorism draws from an American Exceptionalism notion and resonates through American cultural grammar and identity, reaffirming American values by negation. Following the 9/11 Commission Report, the proliferation of security agencies at the federal, state, and local levels illustrates a shift of the national security strategy, from a counterattacking approach through traditional, hierarchical, and reactive metrics to a pre-emptive deterrent war, attacking threats before they are fully formed. It represents a fundamental move towards a securitization of society, emphasizing the flow of information from local to federal agencies; from the community to the police, and vice versa. According to Collins (2004), with the absence of a specific targetable group, the war on terrorism has become a perfunctory war on suspicion.

As already noted, the DHS (2012) urges people who see any suspicious activity to report it to the nearest local law enforcement or authority, accurately describing what the person observed.

Communities play a critical role in keeping our nation safe and across the nation we all have something or someone to protect. It's on all of us to say something. If you do see something you know shouldn't be there or someone's behavior that doesn't seem quite right. Regardless of your industry or size, domestic terrorism is an issue that affects us all.

The tone of the statement reinforces this unity against a common enemy, emphasizing the role of the public to identify and report threats before they take shape. In the second pamphlet (Figure 1, right), the DHS reiterates that public safety is everyone's responsibility and requires people to keep an eye out for suspicious activity, focusing on the 5Ws: what, who, when, where, and why. When specifying how a person can be sure about whether something is suspicious, the DHS encourages people to "trust your instincts and report any activity that you feel suspicious" to law enforcement, thus allowing the authorities to determine whether it warrants investigation. Despite the long list of signs, what is suspicious is not entirely specified on the DHS pamphlet, leaving room for interpretation. The signs are displayed as generic pictographs, such as a phone, a camera, a person running away with a bag, a computer with a lock, a plane, a mobile phone; without any background, aiming to represent terrorism-related suspicious activities (Figure 1). However, it is unclear how a rider without previous training can discern whether these stand-alone icons represent terrorism-related behaviors. Far from specific, the texts below each icon appear as a catch-all representation of suspicious behavior. For instance, a camera pictograph is captioned: surveillance, a prolonged interest in or taking pictures/videos of personnel, facilities, security features, or infrastructure in an unusual or covert manner. Nowadays, every phone has a camera integrated, and people might take pictures for different reasons (personal or professional video calls, curiosity, research, report a system failure, etc.). The association of a camera to suspicious behavior enables riders to be more vigilant to anybody taking a picture in an "unusual" manner that does not conform to the observer's standards of what is usual or customary.

Moreover, the DHS's "suspicious" standards contradict the MTA rules. Despite the many attempts of the MTA to ban photography throughout the system, it is not prohibited unless using ancillary equipment such as lights, reflectors, or tripods (Tonnelat and Kornblum 2017, 108). According to the authors, these contradictions create their own enforcement ambiguities and even more ambiguity of what is actually allowed or prohibited.

Another noteworthy icon displays an ID with an exclamation mark to illustrate misrepresentation, presenting false information, or misusing documents to conceal possible illegal activity. Many subway behaviors might fall under this category (e.g., using someone else's Metrocard or using a reduced-fare card when the rider is not 65 or older). While illegal, these behaviors are hardly connected to terrorism-related activities. Yet, the icon-description association has a strong power in bolstering riders' vigilance towards any potential behavior. Another icon depicts a broken window representing sabotage/tampering/vandalism, damaging or destroying part of a facility, infrastructure, or secured site. As in the previous case, while this could be a typical deviant or/and illegal behavior in a public space, by itself, it is hardly connected to a terrorist attack. 

The catch-all suspicious activity illustrated by these pictographs is coherent with the Intelligence-led Policing (Price 2013, 7) and Broken Windows approaches that NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau embraced post 9/11, based on the assumption that any trivial and non-serious form of crime might be part of a broader terrorist plot (Manhattan Institute 2018). However, this rationale collides with the liberal balance between security from harm and interference on freedom, the current efforts to decriminalize certain behaviors such as fare evasion and loitering, and even with the Army's mission of "deterring and detecting terrorism (…) not to arrest people for minor crimes" (Arnews 2017). Furthermore, it trumps the negotiated social order that, according to Goffman (1963), is anchored on unspoken social norms of unfocused civil attention by working on behaving like strangers –giving others enough visual notice to admit having seen them but withdrawing one's attention from them to express they do not constitute the target of special curiosity. For instance, Ocejo and Tonnelat (2014) note that while looking at other riders is socially acceptable, staring is not, as it represents a rupture in the subway's social order of civility and impingement upon another's social boundaries (p.501).

Eventually, the message if you see something, say something enables any abnormal, unusual, beyond mere curiosity, covert manner behavior to fall under the suspicious category, and it places part of the responsibility to keep the community safe on the public, who is at the same time negotiating the social order by navigating the implicit social norms of riding alone together in a public space. However, as stated earlier, it remains controversial how riders discern suspicion strictly from behavior rather than appearance and how they can get involved without surpassing the informal boundaries of this spatially constrained and socially heterogeneous public space.

  1. Semantic vs. poetic meanings

According to Burke's (1945) pentad of language, which sustains its force through system-specific epistemological god-terms, the point is not to avoid ambiguity but to identify where it arises. In fact, to be comprehensive, the message always relies on pockets of ambiguity. Drawing from Burke's model to analyze the US government's rhetorical logic in US National Security Strategy documents, Mohr et al. (2013) distinguish between semantic and poetic meanings; a nuance that is also apparent in the see something, say something campaign. 

Semantically, something is challenging to concretize as it requires precision and disambiguation, but it becomes univocal if substituted by anything on sight. As discussed earlier, something implies a desperate need to respond to an attack that left people without a clear framework of understanding nor words to fill in an unprecedented rupture, while it projects to a future attack before it takes place. Doing nothing is not an option but, semantically, what something is or implies remains vague. Within this context, the concept of something as a catch-all blanket category is sufficiently ambiguous to end up targeting irrelevant and innocuous behaviors and groups of people while ignoring real threats and perpetuating a perception of control and security. Moreover, by shifting security responsibility to the community, the public becomes more alert of others while aware that they are also being observed. Ocejo and Tonnelat (2014) argue that each rider is on display before others and must demonstrate an appropriate appearance to avoid being perceived as suspicious and encourage conformity and trust in a physically limited space. As Goffman (1963, 16) explains, every act becomes a gesture of intention and individuals take the attitude of others present, regardless of the end to which they put the information acquired. However, the ambiguity of something inserts confusion and anxiety on what "normal appearance" conveys and leaves people with different perceptions of crime and fear and without proper training on risk assessment, continuously exposed to a war discourse amid current efforts to decriminalize certain behaviors, to assume security responsibilities that can lead to unintended consequences (e.g., biased reporting and false positives). 

In contrast, poetically, its meaning is not presumed to be simple and unambiguous. It is in this ambiguity where strategical points unravel: categories as "strategies for relating enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye; for purification, propitiation, and desantification; consolidation and vengeance; admonition and exhortation…" (Burke 1945). According to Mohr et al. (2013), the US strategy intends to represent the highest-level national strategy document, echoing across many other documents, policies, and practices, including such local policies as the subway campaign. The if you see something, say something is used to expand public safety responsibility towards the community, providing some guidance of what suspicion might entail while allowing citizens to trust their instincts, which are simultaneously shaped by a ubiquitous crime control rhetoric.

Communication is essential in this shift from reactive towards preventive strategy because, as Mathiesen (1994) argues, it becomes the central link between the legislator, law enforcement, and the general public. The interaction process goes beyond mere knowledge of law and policy. Moreover, the message intends not only to deter and morally educate the public but also to actively engage it in the role of security. As Machin and Mayr (2012) discuss, while the public is not told how to interpret the message, lexical choices clearly indicate the message. Similarly, Mathiesen argues that the carriers of meaning (e.g., words, pictures, bodily postures, facial expressions) that transfer the message presuppose a common context of symbolic understanding: "when the context is not there, the recreation of meaning becomes correspondingly broken or deficient" (p.223). Something does not directly nor explicitly define anything, but this is precisely how it signifies the national discursive rationale of a deterrent and preemptive war. The intrinsic qualities of the see something, say something reveal a definitive historical commitment towards the new governmental (preventive and proactive) social control approach while exposing the void meaning and categorization difficulties discussed earlier. As Mathiesen (1994, 232) acknowledges, this lack of clarity and uncertainty is to be expected: "as far as general prevention goes, the communication process necessarily makes the results uncertain and unclear and the correlations weak at best. This is, you might say, preventive reality." Furthermore, as it refers to the future, it permeates in the present. Krzyżanowski (2020) notes how ambiguity is employed towards normalization and the discursive construction of new normality; not just by emphasizing distinctions between us and them and discarding non-dominant discourses (see above) but by gradually and implicitly blurring normative boundaries of what constitutes tolerable risk.

In this sense, the message does not intend just to persuade or communicate but acts as a way to socially construct –implicitly (semantically) and explicitly (poetically)– meaning and signify a particular discourse, contributing to the production and reproduction of a national security strategy, to "keep our nation safe." The national preventive strategy is embedded in a simple phrase: be suspicious about an elusive and ubiquitous enemy (something) while activating and engaging the community (you, the public), through a forward-looking structure and normative tone (if you…then…), urging them to do something (prevent the harm before it takes shape).

  1. A forward-looking, never-ending preemption

When deconstructing something, it is also essential to focus on the visual and situational power of the message. As Barthes' (1972) argues, visuals are a kind of speech in themselves. Visual choices achieve a level of communication that language in itself cannot accomplish; creating, shaping, and maintaining specific meanings and legitimizing certain social practices (Machin and Mayr 2012). The campaign's structure and visual magnetism are compelling from at least two angles: its conditional form and forward-looking peremptory tone and its appeal towards you. Although they are interrelated, this paper aims to shed light on the former.

According to Berger (1972, 130), images burrow their way into our minds, stimulating our imagination by way of either memory or expectation. They are contingent and need to be continuously updated as they refer to the past while always speaking of the future. In this sense, the see something, say something emulates the loose lips might sink ships structure from the propaganda posters during World War II to advise the public to avoid careless talk that could undermine the war effort (Figure 2). However, the structure of the WWII propaganda contrasts with the current conditional formula if-this, then-that. In the first case, might expresses possibility (although with low probability) about the fatal consequences of loosely speaking (clearly represented by a sinking ship and smoke) in an impersonal tone, without directly addressing the reader. In the second case, the conditional if, then expresses certainty (although about something ambiguous) while positively commanding you: the fulfillment of this certainty is endlessly deferred, embodying the nature of a war that is never-ending and pre-emptive towards the infinity and its potentially catastrophic damage. The phrase speaks to the future while anchored on the memory of the attacks. While in the first case, the uncertainty of an evident result remains implicit in might, in the second case, the ambiguity remains hidden on something.

An additional significant detail is the emphasis on specific words combined with non-linguistic features. In Figure 1 (right), the slogan appears in lower-case comic font, combining a navy-blue text over a light-blue muted background (tuned to the childlike style of the pamphlet), with the verbs see and say stressed in bold. According to Machin and Mayr (2012, 47), directives are found where sentences start with a commanding verb. Although this directive does not begin with a verb, the foregrounding of the two verbs over the rest of the message resonates with this imperative tone. In contrast, in Figure 2 (right), the text appears in upper-case, equally sized and formatted. Unlike the seemingly innocuous pamphlet in Figure 1, the palette of colors in Figure 2 –a black command over a cautioning yellow background with a smaller but sharp red warning– is strident, saturated, louder. Although the verbs remain buried in the text, the combination of colors resonates a deontic tone, attaining a sense of readiness, urgency, and authority. It is important to note that, as the pictures in Figure 3 illustrate, the slogan placed throughout the subway system is more in tune with Figure 2 than Figure 1.

The significance of these verbs is not only perceived visually but in conjunction with their linguistic connotation. The sensorial and visceral verbs see and say –signifying the "trust your instincts and report any activity that you feel suspicious" directive– although denoting specific organs, they connotate and appeal to all the naked senses to perceive something. Moreover, an instinctive see followed by an expressive say in an imperative clause –instead of a more cognitive verb, such as think– reiterate the immediacy and urge to express something to do something quickly.

A stop sign Description automatically generated

A close up of a sign Description automatically generated

Figure 2. Left: World War II poster published by Seagram Distillers Corporation; Right: MTA original poster

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Figure 3. Left: Church Avenue Station (Brooklyn); Middle: Union Square station (Manhattan); Right: Herald Square Station (Manhattan)­

Following the 9/11 state of confusion, uncertainty, and fear of destruction, there was a need to reestablish reassurance, re-secure public life, and reconstruct the sense of reality that preceded the attacks. According to Molotch (2012), one strategic mistake was assuming that the prior situation was a total absence of risk and uncertainty, zero-risk security. Since 9/11, the notion of security has permeated every aspect of public life based on imaginations of worst-case scenarios (Aradau and Van Munster 2009); "our early worries stay with us not only as private trouble but also as public forces. Life continues reinforcing our original vulnerability, with both ridicule and humiliation always in potential play (Molotch 2012, 3)." Post 9/11 security policies seem to be grounded on this zero-risk judgment false premise; "worrying more over things we lack control of and less on those which we have a sense of potential control" (Molotch 2012, 9).

The underlying intricacy behind this move towards securitization derives from the legal framework conundrum in which the War on Terror materialized. While the War on Terror aims to mirror traditional war frames, it expands beyond conventional boundaries as an ongoing and never-ending war against an elusive, amorphous, geographically faded enemy. The applicable legal framework becomes part of a borderline discourse (Krzyżanowski and Ledin 2017), a continuous back and forth or, more accurately, an expansion-contraction movement, constantly on the verge between war or law enforcement frameworks; an ambivalence driven by the impossibility of concretizing the nature and scope of the threat, enabled through ambiguity, and becoming legitimized through a utilitarian language of necessity with moral resonances.

The deliberate undefinition of contours presents dilemmas in a liberal society that assumes some tolerance to uncertainty and risk to safeguard freedom. Security assumes a sensible and reliable world in which to act; a more-or-less state where human planning can go forward and urges those in charge of security, to do something in case of disaster and chaos. Choices about who is protected, who counts the most, what sources of danger are most acceptable, and which type of remedies should be prioritized must be made. As Molotch argues, 9/11 derived into a distorted perception of certainty by which authorities have tools to overcome risks, such as the color code alert system –widely criticized for its definition, design, context, and implementation issues. The irony of social control is that so-called solutions exacerbate problems in the security sphere (Marx 1981) by relying on stereotypes, matching social types to specific behaviors, labeling, conflicting with designers that foresee the best way to respect human practice, prioritizing security while blocking personal curiosity, and by organizing public memory by imposing certainty upon uncertainty (Molotch 2012, 18). As Molotch concludes, there was no political choice but to do something, even if that entailed invoking irrational fear beyond actual threats. 

In this sense, while publicity works upon anxiety–the fear that by having nothing you will be nothing–, the if you see something, say something campaign plays upon the fear of uncertainty and the need to reconstruct and achieve (an unattainable) level of security by and for the community to overcome this anxiety and fear. Moreover, public safety responsibilities transcend law enforcement agencies, and, through these ads, the DHS transfers it directly to the hands (eyes, ears, mouths) of the community, making explicit that it is (also) their responsibility to commit to social order and maintain public safety and security. The placement of the signs, always at the receptor's eye level (e.g., going up the stairs or refilling the Metrocard in the vending machine, as shown in Figure 4), echoes this sensorial ubiquity.

Reflecting on the idea of seeing by evaluating the extra-discursive symbolic world, Schnell (2006) argues that this emphasis on visuals was evident in the US foreign policy and US presidential campaign (2004). It entered our collective consciousness via the ever-increasing circulation of images, ever-spectacular visual events, ever-intrusive instruments, and apparatuses for seeing without needing to be sustained by facts. Schnell identifies a structural transformation of everyday life that helped limit our demand for accountability from politicians and policymakers because claims are not explicitly defined in clear verbal terms (e.g., something). Meaning goes beyond what words can describe, and it eventually collapses; there is no limit to vision, only to words: seeing is believing. In this sense, visual events are places "where the space of circulating subjects transforms into the space of manifestation of a subject in reconfiguring that space, what there is to do there, what there is to see or name" (Ranciere, in Tavin 2006, 4). Suspicious behavior in the subway carries an active force that affects the audience; it is viewed as a conception of thought that mediates the conversation between the subject and the material world (Tavin 2006): performing in culture and being performed through active interpretation.

  1. From something to something

Barthes' framework of first and semiotic orders draws together the threads involved in the construction of something discussed above. Initially, "something" appears meaningless and empty, a neutral word belonging to nobody. The signifier suspicious fulfills something with meaning as shaped by the political discourse and mediated by the media (at a cultural level) and social perceptions and experiences (at an individual level), illustrating a widespread confusion to recognize and categorize something elusive (void meaning) while an urge to do something to control it and reconstruct the security and identity shattered by the attacks. Something becomes a sign: something suspicious. Moving from language to mythological grounds, through the expansion and transference of public safety responsibilities towards the community, the sign becomes signification (myth), carrying the association of something with the public commitment to safety. Through this process, something evolves from mere denotation –something as anything– towards connotation –filling its meaning beyond what is just said, through porous and fluid boundaries; capturing the nature of something suspicious in an elusive War on Terror against an amorphous and geographically faded enemy.

As if we had never been without it, something shifts from an indeterminate and trivial noun into a directive fused in unfocused and inattentive commutes, becoming the public's own expression. It commands an explicit directive with implied meaning, embodying a preventive reality that purposely rests upon ambiguity. Concordant with the process of normalization (Krzyżanowski 2020), the directive becomes, gradually and subtly, part of the mainstream and common thinking.

Figure 4. Adapted from Barthes’ (1972) first and second semiological orders

However, its reading depends on the focus. The association between the intended and the actual assumption of public safety responsibility will depend not on the command but on the public reception and interpretation of the message. While context and language are like two mirrors facing each other, constantly and endlessly reflecting their own images back and forth (Gee 2011, 101), this interaction is not enough to shape meaning and influence the audience. Personal and social cognition always mediate between discourse and society (Van Dijk 2008). In this sense, it becomes a three-way, discourse-cognition-society triangle relationship. Therefore, although the campaign aims to raise public awareness, it cannot automatically trigger the involvement of the public. As Goffman (1963, 43-44) argues, it will also depend on the extent the campaign activates citizens' main and dominant involvements, or side and subordinate involvements, and how it will interfere in their "working consensus" of civil inattention between interactions (as riders) and the social self (as individuals) necessary to sustain social order and trust in a public space. According to Tonnelat and Kornblum (2017), the only way to breach trust and undermine the strength of the subway code is to disturb another rider's activity by showing a lack of respect for riders' selves. Thus, a person taking pictures might not activate another rider to say something.

As Di Maggio and Powell (1983) argue, institutions sustain and adapt not through efficiency, coercion, and control, but trust and legitimacy. In this respect, it is essential to consider the audience, how it shapes the tale, and whose expectations and beliefs are shaped. In the midst of a global pandemic that has shaken social institutions and norms, perceptions become even more complex since all riders are mandated to wear a mask and are constantly reminded to "make New York City safe" through recurrent visual and audio messages. What cannot be directly seen, only implied, might permeate through the porous suspicious category. Furthermore, the legitimacy upon which this policy rest and enables its full signification might be altered when conflating with widespread civil unrest and skepticism towards institutions. While people might become more sensitive to what is suspicious (due to face coverings, physical distancing, etc.) and be able to interpret something according to what the DHS implies as suspicious, they might also become reluctant to report behaviors and assume a public safety commitment with the agency they are distrustful about.

When the state transfers security responsibilities to the community, an inescapable tension arises between the logic behind community intelligence strategies and the cooperation and legitimacy that law enforcement agencies need from the community they serve; promoting public awareness and legitimacy without fueling insecurity. As Richards (2018, 402) points out, the line between good community policing and accusations of spying on a particular "suspect community" is very thin and delicate to dance without tripping over.

  1. Discussion

If the end of the Cold War defined the institution of security throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the September 11 terrorist attacks emerged as a turning point on national and international policy agenda and security standards, shaping public life ever after.

The attacks defined the way institutions and the general public perceived and defined the elusive concept of terrorism, normalizing social control practices through discourse while shielding authorities from criticism and public scrutiny. The if you see something, say something campaign materialized within this pre-emptive war rationale. We cannot understand its framing without contextualizing how terrorism has been constructed and sustained, anchored on an overemphasis on security and distorted perceptions of risk and certainty.

Drawing from different linguistic and visual discourse analysis frameworks, this paper has intended to deconstruct something in a never-ending war context to reveal meanings that lie at a presupposed implicit level. In particular, it has focused on the campaign's word choices, iconographic and salience appearance, and its normative structure, forward-looking tense. It ultimately has aimed to reveal how a seemingly innocuous campaign echoes the transformational reconstruction that came with 9/11, which stretches a particular policy direction while overlooking and silencing other alternatives.

This context-language analysis paves the way to further explore the second angle of the campaign –you–; how the message becomes a speech act with enough power to frame people's interpretations. Neither language nor audience perceptions are linear nor neutral; they are highly contingent on cultural and social systems, especially in a context of a global epidemic and civil unrest that unravels new layers of complexity. Policies intended to transfer public safety security responsibilities to the community will likely take new directions and dynamics.

Conflicts of interest: none to declare.

This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


I am very grateful to Dr. Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Dr. Valli Rajah, and Dr. Kevin Wolff for their guidance and comments on earlier revisions of this article; and to Jeremiah Perez-Torres, Diba Rouzbahani, and Lidia Vásquez for the discussions and support. As always, any errors and oversights are mine alone.


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