Years ago, at St. Mark’s New Year’s Poetry Festival, Bob Holman stood up and spoke this poem: “If you see something / say something: / banana.”
The crowd cracked up.
That was the first successful 9/11 joke I can recall. And, unlike Gilbert Godfrey’s earlier failed attempt at a 9/11 joke at the Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner (a joke that made the grief-stricken the crowd shout “TOO SOON!” and made the comedian leap instead into a raunchy rendition of “The Aristocrats”— the “greatest dirty joke ever told”– all of which is captured in the documentary film of the same name), Holman’s timing was perfect.
The MTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something” security ad campaign was launched in 2002. New York City had already long been in the grip of Orange Alert, so long that we’d become accustomed to being mobilized. Eyes open, cell phones at the ready: something seen, something said. Unattended baggage on a subway? On it. Notice someone in bulky or inappropriate clothing? Suspicious! Dead guy riding the Q? OK, that one took longer to call in.
The “See Something, Say Something” public service motto, emblazoned all over NYC public transit has become part of the cultural wallpaper, a comforting refrain for those of us who use buses and subways and occasionally teeter on the edge of the void: what happens if I’m down here and it happens again? London’s subway bombings? Eep?
And just as the heart torques toward hysteria, we recall our role: be a good citizen. If you see something, say something, and that way maybe the whole thing can be avoided. And even better: since everyone else sees those signs too, then they’ll see/say something and that will further expand the force of ground-level urban surveillance, and we’ll all be safe in a web of like-minded onlookers looking out for each other. Force multiplied.
But the MTA’s motto puts us in a tightly restricted position. It’s not asking us to do more than describe what we see. “Be alert,” “Be wary,” “Take notice,” “Report.” And as much as my love of poetry would have me argue that the act of description goes a long way toward conjuring the world(s) we inhabit, it is not an act of explicit reflective interpretation. It is not an act of analysis, or sense-making; it does not ask us to ponder or question or wonder. All of which, granted, might interrupt the crucial flow of information: evidence on the ground must make its way quickly to security forces who can take appropriate action, or we’re all in trouble.
But we’re also all in trouble if we don’t actively practice the art of reflection, analysis, interpretation. Deliberate force expansion is not deliberative democracy. Perhaps the best supplement to Orange Alert is a robust blogosphere—essayistic blog entries where writers perform the act of thinking, enact an urgent expression of idea, critique what we come to take for granted.
“If you see something, say something: banana.”