A Bit of a Rambling Preamble
I’m a 7th grade English Language Arts teacher at a charter school in Boston. I work hard, but not nearly as hard as I demand that my students work. I’m currently smack-dab in the middle of an argumentative writing unit where each week, I provide my students with some short texts to read over the weekend– and over the course of the following week, they plan, draft and revise an essay. This process then repeats the following week.
I designed this unit months ago and the prompts have been chosen for weeks. But this weeks prompt has me thinking about Unsafe quite a bit.
After providing my students with some news articles on high schools tracking their students via data chips in their student ID cards and others who allow retina scans for adults who pick up students, I gave them the prompt:
What is more important: Security or privacy?
The interesting thing is that after weighing both sides of the argument, the majority of my students lean towards valuing security over protecting their own privacy. Their logic and their reasoning is pretty sound (I mean, I did teach them how to build an argument after all), but I couldn’t help but consider why this is the case.
Why are my 12 and 13 year old inner city students willing to sacrifice their location, personal data, and physiological makeup in the interest of remaining safe?
That’s when a thought occurred to me: these are young people living in a post-9/11 world– and that’s when I began connecting my writing curriculum to Jim Dalglish’s Unsafe.
Security in a World after 9/11
In the days and weeks following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States implemented a bevy of procedures, protocols, and programs– all in the name of maintaining security for the American people; for keeping us all safe.
Seemingly overnight, the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress in an attempt to tighten security measures in myriad ways across the country. The American people were dealing with a new sort of threat and a new level of paranoia in the months following 9/11– and these threats required swift and sweeping measures to combat terrorism, both domestically and abroad. The Patriot Act did seemingly have the best intentions in mind: tighten border security, firmly outline punishment for crimes of terrorism, allowed for better cross-department communication when it came to investigating terrorism. However, “Enhanced Surveillance Procedures” were implemented under Title II of the Act–which allowed government agencies to monitor computers, cell phones, and other communication systems in instances of suspected terrorism. This obviously gave rise to concerns about the loss of privacy and abuse of this power.
Hot on the heels of the Patriot Act came the Aviation Transportation and Security Act which gave birth to the TSA. Multi-hour security lines at airports and full-body pat-downs became common place seemingly overnight. Certain “random” travelers who exhibited suspicious behaviors would receive increased scrutiny during the security screening process (read: “Certain suspicious people would be subjected to blatant racial profiling”). We forgave this– because: security.
Beyond this; an entire new cabinet of the federal government was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Department of Homeland Security in 2002 whose mission was to…
“…develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks. The Office will coordinate the executive branch’s efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States.”
Apart from restructuring several existing government departments, the Department of Homeland Security created wide-reaching public campaigns to help increase the awareness of potential terror threats among citizens. The See Something Say Something campaign deputized citizens in the fight against terrorism and asked that they remain vigilant and report suspicious activity. However, due to the wide spread paranoia and fear in the months and years after 9/11, See Something Say Something contributed to examples of profiling and harassment in marginalized or minority populations. Instead of reporting suspicious behavior, more often than not “suspicious” skin color, language, or religious markers became the criteria for reporting.
And finally, the Terror Threat Level became a popular means of communicating the overall perceived threat of a terror attack. You could log onto a website, watch any 24-hour news program, or hear a repeated recording outlining a days given “Threat Level.” While a means to create caution about potential threats, this system caused undue stress and paranoia about a potential repeat attack. I cannot count how frequently I would wait in a security line at O’Hare in Chicago with a repeated reminder that the day’s threat level was “orange.”
The New Normal
This brings me back to my 7th graders– these are the realities my students have been living with their entire lives. They do not remember a time where they could meet their loved ones at their gate in the airport. They don’t remember a pre-TSA era. They seem to value their security so highly because they’ve been told that security is paramount. Privacy and personal freedoms are abstract ideals they’ve never had to contend with.
This is the same world in which the characters in Unsafe are living. They exist in a world just gone mad– Where people are Seeing Something and Saying Something, regardless of the impact their actions have on the accused. These characters exist in a world where people breathe sighs of relief when a man of Middle Eastern descent are escorted from their security line in a “random” screening. They’re watching the world around them plunge deeper into paranoia and fear and being dragged along into the mire.
In many ways, these characters are coming to grips with the world my students are comfortable with. And this confusion as the world around them shifts beneath their feet, creates a hectic and confusing given circumstance for them. They live in the heightened fear, perpetuated by myriad governmental agencies and campaigns, that their world is going to radically change yet again– just as it did on that Tuesday morning in September.
-Tyler J. Monroe, dramaturg