BY ELISABETH BRAW
Anyone who has ever visited London has seen the posters and heard the announcements on Tube stations instructing people to “see it, say it, sorted.” The public awareness campaign encouraging people to report odd behavior to the police is, of course, a response to the threat of terrorism. But the public can play a similarly vital role in other parts of national security too. A new public awareness campaign by the Swedish Navy demonstrates how.
If, say, a suspicious boat arrived near an island off the coast of Sweden, the Swedish Navy and Coast Guard would pretty soon spot and attend to it. But just like the US Navy can’t simultaneously be in every part of the world’s oceans, the Swedish Navy can’t simultaneously be in every part of the country’s 48,000-kilometer (30,500-mile) coastline. Nor can the Coast Guard, a relatively small civilian agency that is primarily responsible for monitoring of infractions such as environmental spills. The Swedish coast does, however, have plenty of residents who not only live there but know their surroundings well.
In the early hours of October 27, 1981, such a local resident spotted something odd while out fishing. Because thought the strange object resembled a submarine, he halted his boat and took a look from afar. Suddenly, men emerged on top of the object and pointed weapons at him. Unsurprisingly anxious, the fisherman hurried back to shore and asked a colleague to call the nearby naval base. Thus was discovered the U137, a Whiskey-class Soviet submarine that had run aground. (The U137 was Sweden’s designation of the sub.) Subsequently — forgive the pun — the incident, which turned into an extraordinarily tense moment between the Soviet Union and neutral Sweden, was labeled Whiskey on the rocks.
Imagine if the fisherman had simply ignored his strange sighting, or if he’d been a cynic who distrusted the Swedish government’s warnings regarding Soviet actions against Sweden. The point is this: The public is a resource in national security, even if the citizen’s role only involves keeping an eye on his or her surroundings and alerting the government to sightings ranging from submarines to abandoned packages on subway stations. Now the Swedish Navy has launched a public-awareness campaign encouraging Swedes to do precisely that. “Does everything look the way it usually does?” the poster asks. “If not, let us know.”
It’s not a big ask. In fact, keeping an eye on one’s surroundings requires minimal effort. Conversely, there’s no government big enough to be everywhere, all the time — on land or at sea. For any Western country trying to tackle the myriad forms of aggression that can be directed against it, the public is a resource. Indeed, because it’s in citizens’ interest to help keep their countries safe, it stands to reason that most of them would be happy to keep an eye on their surroundings. Indeed, judging from the overwhelming Good-Samaritan response to calamities form COVID-19 to Hurricane Katrina, ordinary citizens are eager to do their part.
Governments, however, have long been reluctant to ask their citizens to do anything at all — sometimes because they didn’t want to burden them, and sometimes because they didn’t trust them. In the United States, the federal government clearly has to contend with widespread citizen distrust, and at any rate only few Americans would be in a position to spot strange maritime appearances. But citizen reports of maritime sightings are not the point: Involving the citizenry for the common good is.
The Swedish Navy’s hotline is certain to get lots of silly messages, made-up discoveries, and some malicious reports initiated by hostile states as well. But with its call to the public, it’s demonstrating that national security is not the government’s responsibility alone. And some of the tips received by the hotline will turn prove invaluable. There’s a further benefit as well: An empowered public benefits democracy.