You Can Save Lives

If You See Something, Say Something

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has undergone a fundamental change in the way we approach national security.  Numerous people have lived in fear that another 9/11 bombing could take place. In order to prevent it, the airports now screen passengers more carefully than ever before.  Corporate security has been increased.  Government buildings have become more secure. In fact, the security changes that have been made have actually been quite effective.  The government has reported that they have foiled a number of potential acts of terrorism ... recently in several major cities on the same day.  Often, these plots have been prevented because of information provided by ordinary citizens around the world.

Statue of Liberty and World Trade CenterCredit:

We are beginning to realize that we do not need to live in fear. There are things that everyday people can do to make a difference. What are the warning signs that we can all watch for?  At a meeting of police chiefs in Denver a few years ago, the chiefs decided to promote increased vigilance through the National Community Watch Program that was started by the National Sherriffs' Association (the NSA) in the 1960s. The Police Chiefs decided they could expand the community watch program by adding the National Terror Alert System to it.  In order to make people aware of this change, they broadcast a number of suggestions designed to help all American citizens learn how they could assist law enforcement with the war on terrorism in the United States.

Combating terrorism cannot be left solely to the professional police agencies. We all must do our part to notice and report suspicious activities. Their slogan has become: If you see something, say something. Listed below are some of the facts you should know in order to spot potential acts of terrorism in the US.  All of these suggestions are also listed, in detail, on the website for the National Terror Alert. However, this article gives you a general overview of the behaviors that do, and do not, constitute suspicious behavior.

You may also want to use the link below to learn more about terrorism in the United States:

Quick link to Amazon books about terrorism in the United States.

Terrorists Can Look Like You

The first thing you should know is that potential terrorists often strive to dress well, and be ordinary looking. Most often, they are NOT middle-eastern! So, in order for your suspicions to be taken seriously, you need to understand that you should not report strangers simply because they look "foreign" or "middle-eastern" to you. You should not report people because they are Muslim, or worship God in a different way. Although this may shock you, most bombings and similar terrorist activities in this country have actually been committed by white American citizens. Two well known examples are the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh, and the activities of the infamous Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. The National Terror Alert website reports that terrorists often live among us without arousing suspicion. They point out that it is usually impossible to identify a terrorist by their appearance, nationality, religion or language. Instead, you need to carefully observe the behavior of strangers that catch your attention because of unusual behavior. For example, terrorists frequently need training or equipment, or will conduct surveillance, and these activities do make them suspicious.

Unabomber SketchCredit:

Pictured Above is a Sketch of the Unibomber - Ted Kaczynski

There is another reason why it is not helpful to stereotype foreigners and new immigrants to our country. Many of them are simply students, visitors, or immigrants who have come to this country because they were fleeing religious and political persecution in their home countries ... and they love America as much as any natural born citizen. Therefore, race and ethnicity are NOT reliable ways to pick out suspicious activity.

Spotting Terrorism in Your Community

Once you put racial profiling aside, trust your gut instincts regarding any suspicious activity. Subconsciously, we often realize that another person near us is behaving strangely, or appears to be doing something sneaky. Of course, they might not be planning a bombing, but some other criminal activity, instead. Just be aware that when your subconscious perks up, something out of the ordinary may be going on. Be alert, and notice changes in typical behavior.

For example, in Denver a man entered a beauty supply store and purchased huge amounts of hydrogen pyroxide, a very volatile hair chemical. He claimed that he had many girl friends and he was planning to color their hair. The store clerk knew that these were dangerous chemicals, and she had a feeling that the man was lying about how he planned to use these products. She reported him to the police. It turned out that he was planning to use the chemicals to build a bomb. His purchases and other behavior were not typical of the normal store customer at this beauty supply shop.

What other types of unusual behavior could be an indication that a person is planning an act of terrorism, or some other criminal activity? Pay attention if someone is wearing much heavier clothing than would be appropriate for the weather or the situation. They could be hiding a bomb strapped to their bodies.

Be concerned, as well, if someone starts asking a lot of questions about building security, especially the location of security cameras and metal detectors, no matter what reason they give for their curiosity. Be especially alert if these questions involve a mall, school, or government building. Certain corporate offices could also attract terrorists. Report these questions to law enforcement, or mall security.

In addition, contact the police quickly if someone abandons a van or car, especially if it is parked illegally, too near a high-rise, or if it is blocking access to a building.

Call the police if someone appears to intentionally leave behind a package, luggage, a brief case or a backpack. Be especially concerned if this happens in a government building, a mall, at the entrance to a school, somewhere where there is a large gathering of people (such as a sporting event), at a train station, or an airport. All of these are places that terrorists have shown particular interest in destroying.

Quick link to Amazon books about terrorism in the United States.

Other Types of Suspicious Activity

There are certain types of behavior that should make us all become particularly alert. According to the National Terror Alert website, here are some of those activities:

If someone rents, purchases or steals uniforms for police or other security personnel

If someone rents, purchases or steals explosives, weapons, ammunition, propane bottles, toxic chemicals, trucks or other vehicles that are designed to contain hazardous materials.

Remember that many possible terrorist bombings have been prevented not by law enforcement, but because of a tip from an observant citizen. If everyone pays attention to their surroundings, hopefully we can all work together to prevent another 9/11.

What to Do if You Think You See Suspicious Activity

The National Terror Alert website lists the kind of information you should jot down if you believe you are witnessing suspicious activity:

Describe the people, including how many, their gender, clothing, and ages.

Explain exactly what they are doing.

Provide the exact location.

Make a note of the exact time, including how long the activity goes on.

Describe any equipment or vehicles that they are using, including the license numbers of cars, the type of cameras they are using, any visible weapons, etc.

While you are gathering this information, call the police or alert security. The sooner authorities arrive, the more likely they will be able to evaluate whether or not this activity is dangerous or criminal.  Do not try to interfere with these activities yourself, and do not put yourself in danger in order to obtain this information.  Your interference could actually cause the suspects to deploy their bomb more quickly, if that is what they are planning.

How has the United States changed since 9/11?  Before the bombing of the World Trade Center, drugs and street crime seemed to be the biggest concern of citizens who formed neighborhood watch groups.  It didn't seem possible that they would ever need to learn how to spot potential terrorists on American soil.  However, we do not have to continue to feel like victims.  We can all learn how to thoughtfully and intelligently play a positive role in keeping America safe.  Remember:  If you see something, say something.

If you are interested in learning more about what ordinary citizens can do to prevent a terrorist attack in their neighborhood, you may want to read the entire advisory at

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