If You See Something, Say Something®

Photograph Source: istolethetv – CC BY 2.0

This creepy slogan was coined on September 12, 2001 by a New York advertising executive in reaction to the tragic events the day before. It was subsequently used by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for ad campaigns on the city’s subways and buses, and quickly catapulted from the local to the national stage and insidiously wormed its way into the collective consciousness.

According to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the $100 billion-dollar bureaucratic behemoth with the throwback name that conjures up more images of brownshirts than edelweiss, it’s “a national campaign that raises public awareness of the indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crime, as well as the importance of reporting suspicious activity to state and local law enforcement.” Since “suspicious” is in the eyes of the beholder, saying something about what you see casts a rather wide net.

When I first saw it in New York City, visions of Big Brother and a snitch culture danced in my head, preceded by an eyeroll. In a country in which privacy is denied to most and the government spies on its own citizens with impunity (thanks, Ed Snowden!), it was a natural progression in the continued expansion of the nine-headed hydra that is the surveillance state.

On a recent trip to the US, I once again saw these trite yet ominous words, this time on a highway sign in Minnesota, of all places, a state known more for its 10,000+ lakes, giant shopping mall, quaint accent, and breath-taking scenery than suspicious activity, terrorism, or terrorism-related crime.

What I saw during a whirlwind month-long journey to the Upper Midwest, the West, and the East was not anti-US American terrorism, most of which occurs outside of the US in regions and countries that have been victimized by US policy and actions, but it is criminal, and goes a long way in explaining why the US is in rapid and irreversible decline.

A Sampling: Mostly the Bad and the Ugly

It is well-known that the US is a divided and conflict-ridden society that is fraying at the seams on so many levels. From the homeless in Denver, fellow human beings reeking of alcohol, desperation, and sweat, sleeping in doorways, begging for a dollar, utterly stripped of dignity, to the legion of people who are underpaid and overworked. Most US Americans are engaged in a struggle for existence that elevates their stress level, increases their sense of alienation, and diminishes their quality of life, not to mention shortens their life expectancy, healthy and otherwise.

As a result of the perennial mass shootings, I was always on high alert in public places such as shopping centers and event venues. Some had warnings (“This Event BANS GUNS IN THESE PREMISES”) and the metal detectors to back them up, while others just had signs, as if mere words would deter gun owners from exercising their right to pack heat, warnings be damned.

On more than one occasion, especially as I was jostled by disintegrating roads in desperate need of repair or resurfacing, and drove over dilapidated bridges with crumbling concrete and rusting metal sections, I thought of what Jim Rogers, a US investor who now lives happily in Singapore, said in a 2013 Barron’s interview about his 9,521 mile move from New York to the Switzerland of Asia:

When I was selling my New York house, I almost backed out; I just couldn’t bear the thought of leaving. But now I’m very happy here. I fly to New York and I realize I’m in a Third World airport. Then I get into a Third World taxi onto a Third World highway. The difference now just slaps me in the face. New York is a wonderful place, with the people and the vibrancy, but I can find the same vibrancy, if not more, in Asia.

For him, as for so many others, the scales fall from their eyes and the bloom is off the red, white, and blue rose once they discover the world beyond. Sadly, but predictably, so much of the US of 2022 is “Third World.” Aside from its creaking infrastructure, canyon-like income and wealth gap, its headlong descent into Christian fascism, and the prospect (and reality) of violence, it has one of the highest child poverty rates among OECD countries (about 1 in 6 children are classified as poor using the income threshold of $26,500 a year for a family of four), and record-high national and personal debt levels over $30 trillion and $15 trillion, respectively.

The fact that military spending comprises over 50% of the discretionary US federal budget of $1.5 trillion gives you a depressing idea of the nation’s perverse priorities, or at least those of its political elite and the oligarchy they serve and benefit from. The US spends more than two-and-a-half times what China spends and more than the defense budgets of the next nine countries, including China and Russia, combined.

The lines from the CCR classic, Fortunate Son, have never rung truer: “Yeah-yeah, some folks inherit star-spangled eyes; Hoo, they send you down to war, Lord; And when you ask ’em, ‘How much should we give?’; Hoo, they only answer, “More, more, more, more.”

The military, in a society that glorifies violence and war, is a source of pride among most US Americans yet it does nothing to contribute to their well-being, unless they work for a defense contractor or are a shareholder in one of these companies. It is akin to a societal mental illness with no cure in sight.

Then there are the physical illnesses associated with obesity, examples of which are hard to miss wherever you wander. It’s no wonder when you look at what most US Americans eat. The portions at restaurants are huge and the diet is generally high in carbs with too much fat, salt, and sugar. On the bright side, one glimmer of a silver lining for those of us who need to lose a few pounds and are used to fresh ingredients and healthier food is that the US is like a fat farm. It’s easy to eat less.

With a few notable exceptions, I had numerous encounters with uncaring, unfriendly, and often downright rude customer service workers whose smartphones or conversations with co-workers took precedence over my needs. Most do the bare minimum and go through the motions. So much for customer as king or queen. Worst of all, most US Americans seemed resigned to this low standard of customer service.

My sympathy for many companies facing a shortage of workers could fill a thimble, knowing how little most workers earn, how dismal the benefits are, and how employees are treated. In my home state of Delaware, I noticed a sign outside a McDonald’s that was recruiting workers for up to $15 an hour. That amounts to $31,000 a year flipping burgers, frying fries, and pouring liquid sugar without a vacation. The annual amount – before taxes – doesn’t buy much in most locations in the US of 2022.

The glum attitude of most US workers in the service industry is in stark contrast to Asia, which has a well-earned reputation for hospitality and customer service. One graphic illustration of this difference was my transfer in LAX, another Third World airport, from a domestic American Airlines to a Tokyo-bound Japan Airlines (JAL) flight. It wasn’t until then, kind welcome, smiling faces and chill-out music, that I breathed a sigh of relief, closed my eyes, and started thinking about that glass of plum wine on the rocks.

On a positive note, there was a cultural difference that always puts a smile on my face. When you pull up to a four-way stop, everyone, with very few exceptions, regardless of who they are and what kind of vehicle they’re driving, follows the established etiquette. They wait patiently for each driver to take her/his turn. Whoever arrived first, goes first, and so forth. How quaint and civilized, I always think to myself. Why can’t US Americans apply this simple act of cooperation to other areas of their society?

In Vietnam, a culture that values harmony, there is virtually no cooperation on the road. Everyone tries to go at once and whoever’s gets there first without an accident takes the prize. Survival of the biggest, fastest, and most risk tolerant. On the other hand, the only folks with guns are police, soldiers, and a select few criminals who are able to purchase them on the black market.

The Asian Century, Indeed

Every trip to the US and my long-term experience in Asia confirms the prevailing global sentiment, borne out by a hefty volume of facts and figures: this is indeed the Asian Century. My observations, selected anecdotes backed up by dire statistics, are living proof that the greatest threat to the US is not foreign but domestic.

While my adopted home country of Vietnam has its share of challenges, some of an existential nature, e.g., environmental pollution, it is safe and dynamic. In spite of everything, the latest challenge of which was the COVID-19 pandemic, most Vietnamese remain optimistic about their prospects and the future.

And, yes, the food is healthier and tastier. That $1.72 bowl of beef phở the day after I returned home was culinary ecstasy compared to the cheap $13.50 imitation served up in the US.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.