See something, say something

17 years ago

“If you see something, say something.” That is the message adorning the New York City subway, urging passengers to report suspicious activity. In Washington, the United States Capitol Police have asked those who work on Capitol Hill to pay close attention to their environment to “help be the eyes and ears with our local law enforcement.”  This citizen call to action is being made in communities large and small throughout the nation. Right here in Maine, the Port of Portland Director Jeff Monroe reiterated that message by recently reminding Mainers to report suspicious activity. An alert citizenry is one of our best defenses against terrorist attacks.
The recent warning that terrorists may be conducting “dry runs” at our nation’s airports is another reminder of the very real threats that confront our homeland. This warning is consistent with a new National Intelligence Estimate report advisory that the U.S. homeland faces a “persistent and evolving terrorist threat” from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups driven by an undiminished intent to attack us here at home.
Our nation’s intelligence gathering capabilities have improved significantly since September 11, 2001. The Collins-Lieberman Terrorism Prevention and Intelligence Reform Act resulted in improved coordination among agencies to better enable us to detect and thwart terrorist attacks. But despite these improvements, the terrorist threats to our nation are ever-present and evolving. Keeping our homeland safe depends on more than our intelligence and law enforcement community; it also depends on vigilant and watchful citizens.
It is particularly imperative that citizens be watchful and report suspicious behavior in the area of mass transportation where there is the potential for mass casualties, where vehicles and aircraft can be used as weapons, and where there is only a brief period of time for assessing and reacting to threats.
But when a group of airline passengers recently reported suspicious activity they thought represented a terrorist threat, the result was that those passengers, the pilot, and the airport were all sued. This case highlights the fact that plaintiffs can misuse our legal system to chill the willingness of average citizens to come forward and report possible dangers.
As was widely reported last year, six Islamic clerics had moved out of their assigned seats and had requested, but apparently were not using, seat belt extenders that could possibly double as weapons. The airline decided to remove these individuals from the plane for questioning. It defies common sense that passengers who came forward to report this suspicious activity were sued. The very existence of this lawsuit clearly illustrates how wrong it is to allow private citizens to be intimidated into silence by threat of
litigation, particularly when the eyes and ears of private citizen are so critical to our homeland security.
There have been a number of recent examples where terror plots were thwarted and lives saved due to the involvement of alert citizens. For example, it was a watchful video store clerk in Ft. Dix, New Jersey, who
reported a suspicious video that led to the uncovering of a plot that, if executed, would have caused great loss of life.
It is because our reliance of an alert citizenry is so great that I authored bipartisan legislation that would encourage individuals to report suspicious activity to appropriate officials without the fear of being sued. This provision was approved by Congress as part of a comprehensive homeland security bill that the President recently signed into law. Our provision is simple: it will protect individuals from lawsuits when they, in good faith, report reasonable suspicious behavior that may reflect terrorist activity. This protection would not apply to individuals who knowingly make false statements. Our laws and legal system must encourage, not discourage, citizens to be the eyes and ears that are so helpful to our law enforcement and intelligence communities.
The message that this new law conveys to the American public is, “If you see something, don’t be afraid to say something.” Our nation’s homeland security depends on it.