The Reverse Mussolini Fallacy, Again:

I've at times complained about the Reverse Mussolini Fallacy. The Mussolini Fallacy is believing that, because Mussolini made the trains run on time (if he did), that excuses his other acts. The Reverse Mussolini Fallacy is believing that, because Mussolini made the trains run on time, making the trains run on time is bad.

A commenter to an earlier post writes:

Boston was one of the first, if not THE first, city to adopt the language suggested by privately produced DHS guides: "If you see something, say something." Apparently the comparison to Maoist China or Stalinist Russia does not worry these people. Reporting crimes is one thing. Reporting suspicions is quite another.

It's true that totalitarian regimes rely on citizens to report misconduct by their fellow citizens. But so must democratic and liberal regimes: The police can't be everywhere (and shouldn't be everywhere), so they rely on citizens to alert them about what they should investigate.

Nor is the "reporting crimes / reporting suspicions" distinction sensible here. Sometimes -- often -- a citizen observes something that isn't clearly a crime, but that seems suspicious, which is to say that might be evidence of a crime. You might hear screaming from your neighbor's house, but not be sure whether there was a crime or just a nasty argument. You might see someone pull a kicking, screaming child into a car; is that a kidnapping or just someone dealing with a tantrum? You might see someone leave a backpack in a subway; could that be a bomb, or did someone just forget his stuff? You often can't investigate further on your own -- it may be too risky, or outside your competence. Of course you should call the police.

Now there may well be times when you shouldn't call the police. The most obvious example is if the offense shouldn't be a crime in the first instance (if you tattled on a neighbor for saying anti-government things in Soviet Russia, that would be bad even if the statements were the crime, so you were "reporting [a] crime[]" rather than a "suspicion[]"), or if you think the punishment is likely to be grossly disproportionate to the crime. Sometimes demands of loyalty to friends or family may outweigh the demands of preventing harm to possible future victims of those friends or family; that's a really tough call, but I do suspect that -- rightly or wrongly -- I wouldn't turn in a family member for petty shoplifting. If you think that the police are bad enough, you might not want to help them at least unless the crime is very severe. And finally, if you have only the vaguest of suspicions, the possible crime isn't very severe, and you're afraid that the costs of bringing in the police (the hassle to the likely innocent target, plus the waste of time for everyone) exceed the benefits (the possibility that the target is indeed guilty), that might be reason not to call.

But the distinction can't, I think, be simply reporting crimes vs. reporting suspicions; nor can I fault an "If you see something, say something" program, at least unless the program is chiefly aimed at genuinely innocent conduct. (Critics of the war on drugs may fault such programs on this latter ground, but that's a separate argument from the one the commenter was making.) Helping the police catch criminals is generally good, and urging the public to do this is good, too. It becomes bad chiefly to the extent that the law being enforced is a bad law; and if that's so, then that should be the target of our argument, not the attempt to promote citizen reporting of crimes as such.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Reverse Mussolini Fallacy, Again:
  2. Mayor Vows To Go Into Stores To Seize T-Shirts:
I thought trains didn't arrive on time, but they made up for it by hanging anyone who claimed differently.
12.2.2005 7:43pm
David Berke:
Perhaps the problem that people have with the concept is that it suggests people take an too much interest in the lives of others. The public interest in me reporting my neighbor executing someone is very high. The (legitimate) public interest in me reporting that my neighbor was visited by scantily clad women and a man in a purple velvet hat, not so much.

Although you have suggested that sometimes there should be no obligation to disclose, how is one to make that determination? One may believe that the burglary of commercial establishments is not particularly important, but that unlicensed dogs are a dangerous nuisance to public health and safety.

I also think that many people have an instinctive desire to keep most of our lives private, rather than having our activities reported to the government. Part of making that work is the implicit agreement that we will not report the activities of others.

It is also only a short jump from "we would appreciate it if you report criminal activities" to "You will be arrested, jailed, and then imprisoned or fined for failing to report suspiscious events." I suspect that most people find that notion distasteful. Were such a law passed and effectively enforced (questionable), one would expect over-reporting in order to avoid prosecution, meaning that many completely innocent events would be reported to the government. This runs afoul of the desire for privacy...
12.2.2005 8:19pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
My late ex, whose father had been in fascist Italy, said the comment about Mussolini was not really a justification of his rule, so much as a joke about the Italian train system -- so messed up that a dictator might boast that, if he did nothing else, he made the trains run on time.
12.2.2005 9:47pm
Bottomfish (mail):
"If you see something, say something" is associated with the Mass Bay Transportation Authority in the wake of terrorist attacks on trains in London. Since the motto is applied to a specific environment the dangers of abuse are much less than it would pose as a general crimestopper's slogan. It might work out even better if the MBTA provided examples of behavior that warranted reporting.
12.2.2005 9:51pm
Splunge (mail):
Helping the police catch criminals is generally good, and urging the public to do this is good, too. It becomes bad chiefly to the extent that the law being enforced is a bad law;

For completeness, we must add "or to the extent the law is being enforced improperly or to generally ill effect." This is why the disinclination Compton black youth has to cooperate with the LAPD is not always irrational. That is, it's not just the letter of the law that's important -- it's also how it is practically applied.
12.2.2005 9:56pm
Andy (mail) (www):
FWIW, I've also seen "If you see something, say something" in NYC's subway system, but curiously, more often in Spanish than in English.
12.3.2005 12:42am
Julian Morrison (mail):
It's really quite simple. A "concerned citizen" informs expecting results he knows to be ethically good. A "dirty snitch" informs expecting results he knows to be ethically bad. A third party applying their own moral standards may come up with a different answer and label the informer accordingly.

Corollary: if a group of people considers ALL informing to be the work of "dirty snitches", it's probably because they have major philosophical disagreements with the law.

Also corollary: where the law fully instantiates a particular person's value system (and the legal system faithfully carries it out), that person will see all informing as an unmitigated good.
12.3.2005 1:57am
Buck Turgidson (mail):

The slogan appeared before the London bombing and was promoted by DHS guides as one of the ways to get the public's attention. This is the work of private consultants that DHS recommends cities hire to train their personnel. It is not associated with Boston any more than with NYC, Chicago or any other major city. The fact that you have come to associate the slogan with the London bombing may well be one of the positive side effects. To me, however, this sounds too much like earlier attempts to make mail carriers and librarians spy on patrons.

The reason I associate it with Stalinism and Maoism is the vagueness of the implied threat and of the conduct that is worth reporting. I think Eugene's remark is short sighted, especially for someone who takes the slippery slope argument seriously. Should I report my neighbor's habitual jaywalking? Or should I only do it if I don't like him? Or should I report him because he has waifish looking teens go into his house on regular basis? And if it just happens that he's a piano teacher, no harm is done, right?

I'll go further--I believe, the intent behind the slogan was to make people suspicious of each other, not to make them more observant. What next? Five-year plans?
12.3.2005 2:10am
vinc (mail):
I don't disagree with anything you wrote, but for a while Boston took it way too far. There were thirty second announcements what felt like every two minutes. It made it impossible to have a decent conversation or even think straight. I mean this literally--there was more than once where I was talking with someone and we decided to postpone the conversation until after we were off the T, or when I put down a book because I couldn't stand the interruptions. It really did have the feel of a fascist state--not that I've lived in a fascist state, but that's a small taste of what I imagine it's like.

Later, in response to complaints, they thankfully cut back the announcements to a tolerable level.
12.3.2005 5:12am
Bottomfish (mail):
General Turgidson,

In my banal way I went to Google and typed in the slogan. In fact it has no specific association with Boston but rather with the New York mass transit system. It has no association that I could find with the FBI/CIA/DOJ or police departments except in one advisory from the Harvard U. police. (Is that where you see the new fascism developing?) So the slogan is not nearly as indiscriminate as you say. My point was to make it more discriminate by providing examples of what sort of behavior would warrant suspicion.
12.3.2005 6:40am
For example, the posters in the NYC subway with this slogan have illustrative pictures such as an abandoned bag sitting under a bench. I have yet to see a picture featuring a swarthy individual with a box cutter, let alone a picture of a man in a purple velvet hat.
12.3.2005 9:09am
If a state truly believes reporting suspicions is, on average, a good thing, shouldn't part of the program be to encourage citizens to report suspicions of wrongdoing by state officials? I don't believe I've ever seen that.
12.3.2005 9:26am
Ofc. Krupke (mail) (www):
Isn't comparing the encouragement of reporting suspicious activities near terrorism targets with the reporting of "waifish teens" going to a neighbor's house a little much?

Is the concern here a "slippery slope" that might lead to people making outlandish reports about their neighbors? I have to tell you, as a police officer who deals with those sorts of calls all the time, that particular horse has long since left the barn.
12.3.2005 10:49am
Tired of Blogs:
I sincerely hope people don't start calling the police every time I'm putting a kicking, screaming child in the car. Now, if the person doesn't have a car seat for that child, or the kid was shouting, "I want my mama!," that would be suspicious!
12.3.2005 11:05am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Brings to mind a tale of my late ex-wife ( ... after 9/11 she frantically called FBI on her cell phone, to report...

That she had seen two arabic-looking guys driving in a pickup down the Dulles Airport Toll Road (which doesn't lead only to the airport, anyway).

I could picture the FBI person taking the call, trying to sound concerned while thinking "oh, for Pete's sake..."

Her judgment as to who was arabic-looking was rather imperfect. She was convinced the family that moved in across from her was arabic, and flying an Al-Qaeda flag on their car. Turns out the flag was of Guatamala, from which their family had come many years back. (I suggested to her at the time that if AQ had a flag, it was unlikely that its operatives would be driving around post-9/11 DC flying it).

My scant experience with law enforcement info of this type is that the tendency is to swamp the system with useless data. Reporting packages under seats might be useful. All the rest merely invites nervous types to over-report. The bottlenecks come down the road, when data fed in is processed.
12.3.2005 11:54am
Buck Turgidson (mail):
The association with NYC is as false as one with Boston and Boston used it before NYC. You are not likely to find the connection on the web--at least, not directly. The slogan, along with several others, came from a training manual distributed by one of DHS consultant groups that travel across the country to train state and city emergency response administrators. The trainees are usually not too bright and take the suggestions literally, which is why you often see the same approach--down to the same slogan--in a number of different locations.
12.3.2005 2:18pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
In Russia, the crime reports you.
12.3.2005 3:59pm
Windypundit (www):
There's a quantity aspect to this, because while encouraging citizens to report suspicious activity is not necessarily totalitarian, an obsession with suspicious activity by citizens is usually a bad sign for freedom. It's kind of like the difference between having a neighbor who sometimes talks about his gun collection, and having a neighbor who never stops talking about his gun collection. It's just one of those warnings...
12.3.2005 4:00pm
Jesse (mail) (www):
I recall that there was a lot of debate on what the subway ads should say, and that NYC transit chose "If you see something, say something" (regardless of who coined the phrase) because it wouldn't encourage just random reporting, but only what subway riders, in their best judgment, thought was an actual sign of danger. The signs don't say "report anything that looks odd or suspcicious," because everybody on the subway looks odd or behaves suspiciously, and the police didn't want to to deal with a million complaints about people in purple velvet hats who are talking to themselves.

David Berke pointed out:

It is also only a short jump from "we would appreciate it if you report criminal activities" to "You will be arrested, jailed, and then imprisoned or fined for failing to report suspiscious events." I suspect that most people find that notion distasteful. Were such a law passed and effectively enforced (questionable), one would expect over-reporting in order to avoid prosecution, meaning that many completely innocent events would be reported to the government. This runs afoul of the desire for privacy...

This problem actually exists in the child welfare field. In New York, among other states, professionals like doctors and teachers are "mandated reporters." They must report any suspicion of child abuse they have, and can be punished for failing to do so. Since there is no punishment for reporting something that turns out not to be abuse, most people err on the side of over-reporting.

As for Mussolini, Snopes says that, while the trains did improve in the 1920s, Il Duce didn't have much to do with it, and they still didn't run on time.
12.3.2005 5:38pm
The Drill SGT (mail):
Well Italy must truly be the most free country in the world by now, because the trains no longer run on time. We used to say that the only thing worse than an Italian train was a Yugoslav train and since they no longer exist, it is likely that the Italians now have the monopoly on bad trains.
12.3.2005 6:58pm
b.trotter (mail) (www):
Seconding what Jesse said, concerning "Mandatory Reporters", this exists in California as well. When I was a Teacher's Aide at a private school, I was required to sign a document that said that I agreed that if I even suspected abuse of a minor, that my failure to report it would be in effect complicity in the abuse. I wish I'd kept a copy of the document, it seemed inconsequential at the time, but I seem to recall that even though I'm no longer a Teacher's Aide or work in a school at all, I'm still bound by the agreement.
12.3.2005 7:09pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):
Admittedly, the slogan alone does not make a totalitarian regime. The crucial detail is the reaction of law enforcement. A slogan like this one, while suggesting social paranoia, is not, by itself, a sign depraved totalitarianism. Unfortunately, it is not "by itself". It is a direct product of the Patriot Act. And there are many side issues--some of which never took hold--that make it difficult to dismiss this as a benign development. Furthermore, those of us who have been exposed to totalitarian regimes are forever suspicious of anything that resembles them. In this case, this slogan could just as well have decorated the Moscow subway of 1948.

How far are we from "If you see something, say something" to "Even walls have ears"? To everyone who thinks that this is only about terrorism (well, potential terrorism), just ask yourself the question, "What else might they want to know?"
12.3.2005 8:02pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Jesse writes about "mandated reporters". I'd find less of a problem with encouraged, or even mandated, reporting, if the agencies to whom the reports are made were permitted to use, and did use, more judgement and discretion.

In Massachusetts, a mandatory report of suspicion of child abuse or neglect will result in a very quick mandatory home visit, backed by threat of armed force and taking of children, and a period of involvement with DSS. The standards are such that almost all reports will be supported, to the degree that the smallest amount of probable cause brings things to the next level. We have to, because "it's for the children!"

Similarly, we have to help the poor battered women, so police are obliged to arrest somebody, anybody, if they come out to a domestic violence call.

And remember Kambiz Butt, Ayman Gheith and Omer Choudhary? Eunice Stone wasn't wrong to report her suspicions to the police, but the police, who have more experience in these things, should have evaluated the situation before treating the existince of three Arab-descent medical students as a terrorist threat.

(Maybe I'm asking too much. I'm an engineer. If I ask a co-worker if a certain behavior that I don't understand is a bug or a feature, I expect him to answer, not to immediately shut down the entire production line because it might be a show-stopper bug.)
12.3.2005 9:15pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):
I think it was NYT a couple of years ago that reported the story of a New Jersey father--an Israeli who was taking an advanced art photography class. It is normal in most parts of the world--outside the US, that is--to let children run around naked, be it at the house or on a beach. His 3yo daughter sat down on a glass table and he snapped the shot on the spur of the moment. His mistake was taking the roll of film to a generic photolab that immediately reported him. He was forced to move out of the house and prohibited contact with his children--and that was under threat of criminal charges that never came. Guilty, until proven innocent--and for most social services, that is never.

Now, do we want this to expand to all crime reporting and not just alleged crimes against children? Remeber that under the suspicion of terrorism, one can be held incommunicado for some time. If reporting of suspicious object is all that is desired, the announcements at Logan and other airport are far more to the point--if you see an abandoned package 1) report it, 2) it may be destroyed right away, so don't leave your own things lying around. How suspicious packages became "something" and to whom you're supposed to report is not clear from the slogan. The more I think about it, the more I see Eugene as being completely wrong on this. But, as I said, my background plays into this as well. What troubles me is that Eugene should be able to recognize the problem, but, perhaps, he was too young when he emigrated. Maybe he should ask his parents or grandparents. The older they are, the more they will tell him.
12.3.2005 10:06pm
Ofc. Krupke (mail) (www):
A slogan like this one, while suggesting social paranoia, is not, by itself, a sign depraved totalitarianism. Unfortunately, it is not "by itself". It is a direct product of the Patriot Act.

How, exactly?

I was living in Arlington on 9-11, and I recall hearing encouragement to report suspicious things in the days immediately following the attack, before the Patriot Act had even been discussed.

I think people are reading far too much into the brevity and non-specificity of "if you see something, say something." Likely, that has more to do with choosing a pithy, alliterative slogan than any nefarious prupose.
12.3.2005 10:36pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):
Well, Arlington is another matter entirely. I assume you mean Arlington, VA. Court bailiffs thought I looked suspicious because I was tall and had relatively long hair, and that was more than 10 years ago. (I was visiting an attorney friend before his court case). Made them look pretty stupid when they found out who I was. On the other hand, this is an area where there are a lot of targets irrespectively of a general external terrorist threat--a lot of violent idiots in this country and some cases in the particular courthouse were--how to best put it--sensitive. But even under these circumstances, we are still talking about 1) individuals, 2) self-initiated concerns, 3) peace officers, and 4) (don't get me wrong, but...) Republicans.

As for people reading too much into pithy slogans, tell that to the Bush administration ("We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud!"). Slogans, in general, are a sign of propaganda. They can have dual purposes, much of which is to mislead. The positive purpose is to associate short phrases with positive messages ("Just say NO!"--the general cause might have been nefarious, but the particular message had a positive purpose). This slogan simply is too vague and isolated to have a positive association. So what sticks out is its nefarious misinterpretation (and I am not so sure it's a misinterpretation to begin with--I think, its purpose really was to make people afraid and to soften them up for random searches, as we have now in NYC). There is a big difference between awareness and paranoia.
12.4.2005 12:33am
Ofc. Krupke (mail) (www):
Yes, it was Arlington, VA (nice town). You're right that it was sort of a target-rich environment in general, but public requests to report anything suspicious weren't a common thing even there until after 9-11. I'm not sure why you brought up Republicans - Arlington County is HEAVILY Democratic.

And I'm sorry, but I still don't see how this slogan has anything to do with the Patriot Act.

As for people reading too much into pithy slogans, tell that to the Bush administration ("We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud!").

What does this have to do with what we were talking about? My point was simply this: people seem to be saying that the brevity of "if you see something, etc." is vague by design, to encourage us to inform on each other about thigns unrelated to terrorism prevention. My point is that it is far more likely that the phrase is the result of wanting something short that people will remember.
12.4.2005 12:55am
Visitor Again:
Surely I am not the only one who remembers the kitty Genovese incident in the mid-Sixties. A whole neighborhood failed to intervene despite the screams of a young woman attacked on a street late at night in one of the New York boroughs, and she ended up dead. The case became symbolic of the reluctance of people to become involved, even when someone's life is possibly at stake. It is probably that phenomenon--the reluctance of people to inconvenience themselves by reporting the suspicious--that the slogan is attempting to overcome.

Another example: In the late Seventies or early Eighties, mass murderers Lawrence Bittaker and Ray Norris were noisily subduing two teenage girls in a parking lot by tennis courts in the Los Angeles Area. All the tennis players stopped their games to see what was going on. The two murderers saw they had drawn attention and sped off in their van. The tennis players resumed their game without bothering to make a call. The two girls ended up tortured and dead.

I would have no problem reporting an abandoned piece of luggage or paper bag or an apparent kidnapping or attack. I would have a problem reporting someone merely because of suspicious behavior--hanging around looking sneaky, that sort of thing. I'm just not going to do that--and I couldn't anyway, because if I did, given my neighborhood, I'd be on the phone 24/7.

The problem is that a lot of the public won't discriminate in calling. The reader who said it's then up to the authorities receiving reports to discriminate is right on. But the problem is that many of them don't discriminate. I do think, as one reader said, it would be helpful to specify the kinds of things that should be reported.
12.4.2005 11:42am
Buck Turgidson (mail):
Visitor Again,
Two points. There are plenty of cases that one can cite where neighbors or passers-by interfering might have reduced if not a particular crime then the crime environment in general. Charlestown, MA, is rather infamous for its code of silence that used to protect mostly Irish burglars and car thieves (as well as an assortment of other criminals, all white). Other ethnic areas (not just minorities) and groups are similarly hesitant to give up their own to some flatfoot, even if the conduct is outrageous (or worse).

But it's a giant leap from trying to make people care about victims to sloganeering of this type. I wrote earlier that it's a slippery slope, but it's more than that. I really do believe that engendering fear was one of the goals of this slogan.

The slippery slope also cuts the other way--the reason why ethnic neighborhoods tend to avoid police contact is because police represent not only outsiders, but also an oppressive force. By pushing enforecement of T-shirt bans and absurd slogans, this image is only encouraged and can easily turn into a full-blown "us against THEM" confrontation. This is likely to lead to LESS reporting, not more.

Ofc. Krupke,
On the same point, let's remember what the nature of your character was. That particular situation is actually a good case in point, albeit fictional.

The inclusion of Republicans was a joke, but I find it laughable when you describe Arlington Cty as "heavily Democratic". Sure, it's more balanced than Southern Virginia, but HEAVILY?

The mushroom cloud line has everything to do with the issue at hand. It was used as a catchy, one-line metaphor to drive a point home. The purpose was exactly as you describe--to have a short phrase that would imprint in people's memory. It was also nefariously misleading. And I also never said that the phrase was vague by design--it might have been vague by stupidity and short-sightedness. What I did say was that the intent may well have been more than just encouraging watching out for terrorists. Given the Patriot Act mentality (let's give up a few liberties to prevent ourselves from being blown up) goes directly to this issue as well.
12.4.2005 1:21pm
Theway2k (mail) (www):
The belief system in crime reporting should not be based on actual crimes or suspicions, rather in knowing what is right and wrong. I know this value will be relative to the type of government: Democratic/liberty oriented, totalitarian or a government in between. Nonetheless, one cannot go wrong if the value system is a good foundation of right and wrong. This so regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the law, because the law might fall into any of those two catagories regardless of the governmental system.
12.4.2005 6:28pm
Visitor Again:

I know all about refusal to report crimes in general. I began my legal career in Watts, I've represented criminal defendants for 37 years, I live in a largely black and Latino neighborhood near the L.A. Coliseum, and I myself would not report anything to the LAPD short of a murder, serious assault or rape on my doorstep. Not only because of the LAPD's viciousness but because of their incompetence; as someone noted on another thread, they apparently don't care about protecting or serving. As I noted on that same thread, reporting crime is often asking for trouble.

But surely combatting the terrorist threat is of a different order. I, too, doubt a slogan will turn general indifference to getting involved into a willingness to at least protect ourselves against terrorist bombings, but that, I think, is the intent and purpose behind the slogan.
12.4.2005 11:55pm
Gary McGath (www):
The "see something, say something" slogan is used exclusively, as far as I know, on the MBTA transit system, and is applied primarily to objects or actions that might indicate a terrorist threat. Yesterday I picked up a forgotten cell phone on a subway train seat and turned it in. According to the anti-terrorist policies, I was supposed to alert the MBTA cops, who would have treated it as a potential bomb and disrupted travel service. But the slogan isn't used to encourage general reporting of crimes or suspicions in Boston.
12.5.2005 10:34am
Joshua (mail):
Prof. Volokh wrote:
The Mussolini Fallacy is believing that, because Mussolini made the trains run on time (if he did), that excuses his other acts. The Reverse Mussolini Fallacy is believing that, because Mussolini made the trains run on time, making the trains run on time is bad.
To be more precise, the Mussolini Fallacy is believing that, because Mussolini made the trains run on time, that excuses the methods by which Mussolini made the trains run on time, in addition to his other acts.

It seems to me that the regular Mussolini Fallacy, as I've clarified it above, is what's really at issue here, not the reverse one. No one is questioning that preventing terrorism (the analog to making the trains run on time) is bad. Only the methods of doing so are in question.
12.5.2005 11:11am
Buck Turgidson (mail):
Good point, Joshua!

To Gary,
The slogan is not an MBTA exclusive. I've heard it in NYC and, I believe, at O'Hare--although it might have been a different airport. You can trace it back to the DHS contractors, which is why it occurs in rather disparate situations. It's not subway systems copying each other.
12.5.2005 4:35pm