Seeing something, saying something

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S., big cities across the country launched campaigns similar to New York City’s “If you see something, say something,” effort. The idea was a good one-ask citizens to increase vigilance while reminding them not to stay quiet if something seems out of place. But it became a bit of a joke.

One story recounted the allegedly overheard conversation between exasperated commuters on a 6 p.m. train that had stopped. Passenger number one yelled out “What happened?” Passenger number two responded with “Some woman saw something and said something,” to which passenger number one replied, “Doesn’t she know she’s supposed to do that on the way to work, not on the way home?!”

To some degree, those attempts at dark humor probably reflected New Yorkers’ collective anxiety about living in a city that had already been targeted more than once. But the jokes also reflected the belief that there isn’t truly anything that can be done to stop someone bent on terror.

Tell that to Chelsie Shellhas, the woman whose gut feeling stopped 17-year-old John David LaDue from carrying out what he planned as a massacre, in Waseca, Minn. Shellhas saw LaDue in her building’s back yard. Then she saw him struggle to open a storage locker for about 10 minutes. When he succeeded, LaDue entered the storage locker and shut the door behind him.

Shellhas says that’s when her internal alarm bells told her to call 9-1-1. Police arrived in time to find the young man among his gunpowder, pyrotechnic chemicals, ball bearings and pressure cooker, in addition to a journal that contained details of his plan. LaDue intended to kill his father, mother and sister, before starting a fire that would distract emergency responders while he set off numerous bombs at his school. LaDue would then kill the school’s resource officer before spraying gunfire on students and allowing police officers to kill him.

None of that happened. Who knows how many lives Shellhas saved because she listened to her instincts and spoke up?

We, as a society, need to do a lot more of that. And I’m not just talking about speaking up when you believe lives or property are in immediate danger. More people should be willing to speak up when they see something just plain wrong.

A good many insults have been hurled at the person who apparently contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation in order to seek help in addressing a clear violation of the First Amendment at Parkersburg South High School. But that person saw something and said something-likely believing the issue was not going to come to a favorable resolution through authorities at the local level, and therefore contacting a group many wish had not become involved.

Given the hate and bullying that can develop when such issues fester with no light shined upon them, and given the dialogue the FFRF involvement has sparked, it is no stretch to say the person who spoke up has set in motion a chain of what should be very positive events.

In fact, when one considers the increasing number of such bullying incidents across the country that have led to injury or death, who knows how many lives this one person has improved or saved because he or she listened to internal proddings to speak up?

Cultural efforts to shame those branded as tattletales and snitches are toxic, and can do every bit as much damage to a society as blatantly terrorist acts. So I want to remind everyone, whether it be terrorist activity or infringement upon the rights of even one person; if you see something, say something.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com