“If You See Something Say Something:” The Rhetoric of Suspicion Post 9/11

Post 9/11 there was a swift return to the rhetoric of the cold war, promoting suspicion and fear among the American populace. An example of this style of rhetoric is present in the “See Something Say Something” campaign conducted by the Department of Homeland Security as well as some smaller regional groups, such as the government of New York City.


The ads used to conduct this campaign are generally quite simple, often depicting a normal, public place, with the caption “If You See Something Say Something,” in large lettering, and a sub-caption including a number to contact should the reader in fact “see something.” The message of these ads represents a return to the cold war rhetoric of suspicion, i.e. if you think someone or something is out of the ordinary or just suspicious, you ought to tell the authorities. The setting of the images generally included also serve to remind the viewer that one must be on the lookout for terrorism everywhere, much as during the cold war Americans were reminded to be alert for the spread of communism around them. Some ads, including the one pictured above, even go so far as to include a line with a statement such as “Be Suspicious of Anything” making sure to drive home their point: everyone is a suspect. This closely parallels cold war rhetoric espousing the idea that everyone is suspect, as well as the idea that odd behavior likely has a sinister side to it. This is the same line of thinking that led to the conformist attitude that prevailed during the era of containment. Thus many aspects of these ads align very well with the rhetoric of American cold war propaganda, representing a return to the suspicion and fear of that era.


2 thoughts on ““If You See Something Say Something:” The Rhetoric of Suspicion Post 9/11”

  1. This post stuck out to me as I noticed a similar sign on the Caltrain this morning and had similar thoughts. These signs are so ubiquitous in our society today and are very telling about the paranoia and scrutinization of society. The signs and culture propagated by them lead people to profile the people around them and maybe make judgements about certain “suspicious” characteristics. If someone is black, or Muslim, they may be viewed with more suspicion and the slightest error in action could be viewed as devastating. As you mentioned, these signs encourage us to be “suspicious of anything” and to almost assume the worst in the actions of others. Like in the movie “Rear Window” as mentioned in the Nadel reading, the government and society in general encourages everyday people to take on this role of protecting themselves and others by picking out “deviants.” I never really thought much of these signs before and it is very interesting to have a new perspective into what they can demonstrate about our world.


  2. This is an awesome example of Cold War paranoia played out post 9/11. The same idea of “see something say something” is exemplified in an episode of “30 Rock” titled “Somebody to Love.” In this episode, Liz (the protagonist) suspects her neighbor as being a terrorist. After seeing numerous signs prompting her to take action if she sees suspicious behavior, she eventually informs on her neighbor, only for him to be arrested and turn out not to be a terrorist. This highlights the consequences of unnecessary paranoia rampant in society that causes innocent individuals to be viewed as dangerous and targeted.


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