“If You See Something, Say Nothing”: An Open Letter To My Peers

by Marco Ammann-Bianciardi
The Ukrainian/Russia Conflict has been dubbed the TikTok war for its prevalence on social media.

I have begun to write this on the 9th day of Russia’s imperialist exercise in brutality on Ukraine. Yesterday the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was fired upon and then captured by Russian militia, a European council has been monitoring radiation levels at the site. NATO stated early this morning that they would “consider” initiating Ukraine as a no-fly zone, something which President Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked for from his western allies.

As of yesterday more than one million Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighboring countries to escape the onslaught of bombings in metropolitan areas. Around midday today President Putin announced that any of his citizens who rebutted any “information” about the war coming out of the Kremlin would be facing up to 15 years of jail time. President Zelenskyy gave a press conference from an office lined with soldiers and sandbags. If you have a news app or a regular site to check, these are most likely the headlines you’ve been seeing during the past 24 hours— or not. 

Maybe you didn’t know that anti-Putin demonstrations were illegal in Russia in the first place. Maybe you didn’t know that until that press conference President Zelenskyy had been in hiding. With the amount of information flowing from radio towers into our pockets it is nearly impossible to keep up.

If you didn’t, I don’t blame you. I often wish I didn’t have the impulse to check the news every few seconds. Maybe typing “Zelenskyy Ukraine War updates” the second I wake up every morning isn’t the best thing for my already prevalent anxiety. 

If you are one of those people who doesn’t check the news at all, and instead scrolls through Tik Tok— passing up a video of a missile driven through a children’s hospital for a man in heels and clown makeup dancing to the most recent remix-mash-up-from-hell— I’ll be honest.

I don’t blame you for that either. 

People will scroll past a skit, then a dance, then a bombed schoolyard, then another skit. People post videos of all the badass and funny things Ukrainians are saying to Russian soldiers as if it’s a line delivered in the ending scene of a movie right before the heroes take the win. A driver stops by a broken down tank offering to tow them back to Russia. A soldier on an island radios a warship to f*&k off. It’s funny! People are dying, being forced out of their homes, or sheltering in bunkers while their cities are destroyed. But hey, their comebacks are hilarious. And if it’s not hilarious, if it’s simply a video of a furious people being chased out of their homeland by a murderous dictator… well, let’s keep scrolling. 

I don’t blame you for doing so, I’ve done it myself, but why do we do this? I think it goes much deeper than the fact that scrolling past the horrors is simply “easier.” 

It is now three days after I had begun to write this letter. It is Monday morning, I’m sitting on the train. NATO has refused to set in place a no-fly zone over Ukraine, much to President Zelenskyy’s dismay and anger. The U.S. is planning a gigantic drop of military weapons into Ukraine, which the New York Times likened to the Berlin drop of 1948. A new wave of attacks are expected to hit Ukraine’s largest cities by the end of today. 

Everyone, from every generation, has the occasional urge to stick their heads in the ground and feel some amount of inner peace in a world of conflict. It’s human. Although, if the past 20 years have shown anything, it is that Gen Z has a very unique way of doing so. Not only is it unique, but it seems to have been built into our subconscious as the first line of mental and emotional defense against disaster. So, let’s talk about the meme-ifying of world horrors. 

We grew up in the post-9/11 era. We never knew the cold war, we were too young to understand the economic crash of the early 2000’s, the first president we remember being elected was Barack Obama. We weren’t quite old enough to have owned flip phones with antennas, but the iPod touch we used to play the top hits of 2010 was still pretty clunky. The youngest of us maybe got their first cellphones in middle school, but still we’re not quite iPad kids. Essentially, all of our early lives were lived in a state of political and technological transition.

Then, in 2016, when many of us were just barely teenagers, America elected Donald Trump. I remember staying up with my parents all night watching an electoral college that I didn’t understand make a decision that I did not agree with for a democratic government that I could not yet participate in, and I was furious. I walked into my school, which had a student body of mostly queer kids and second or first generation immigrants, and most of us were crying. Even though we hadn’t even learned about the different branches of our government in history class yet (or at least not in detail) we knew what had just happened. We had followed the news and the polls and the primaries. We listened when our parents talked politics, and then went into school and talked politics with each other. Even at that young of an age we were conditioned to be invested and educated in our world, because our world was in our pockets. We understood the ramifications of what had just happened, but we were twelve years old, what could we possibly do about it? 

Since the start of the Trump administration I have seen an increase in the investment of my generation in political protests. We were too young to vote, and too young for many people to take us seriously, so the only power we felt we had was in numbers. When I was thirteen I lay down on the flagstones of Washington Square Park with more than 300 of my classmates in protest of gun violence in schools. That was five years ago now and kids are still having to protest their right not to be murdered in classrooms. 

I’m writing this now on Thursday morning. Russia has criticized the West for making this an “economic war.” Several companies including M&M’s, Nike, Starbucks, and McDonalds have halted production and services in Russia to attempt to further squeeze Russia’s already faltering economy. Brutal attacks continue on Ukrainian civilians. President Zelenskyy says that Putin is attempting a genocide. With everyday passing more western citizens fear the prospect of nuclear warfare. 

When talking about things like the possibility of nuclear warfare or climate change or yet another plague, there is a crushing “Bigness.” It feels as though nothing could possibly face up to this Goliath of a problem, nothing is strong enough to stop this train, especially not some kid in Queens. But we’ve analyzed it. We understand to a painful amount how horrible it is, and yet we are useless to do anything except donate and protest and scream into a void. So sometimes, when we are tired of it all and our day has been long, we scroll past the man carrying the landmine in his hands, and instead watch a clip of Zelenskyy on Dancing With The Stars.

We did the same thing with Covid, it was a meme before there were even cases in the states. We did the same thing with the mess of an election we had in 2020. We did the same thing with Jan. 6th. This is why I said you have a reason, and a good one at that, to keep scrolling in search of a meme. But a reason is not an excuse. 

This pattern is something I have recognized in myself, and it’s something everyone in our generation needs to be aware of. Even if you are tired, it is your resilience and refusal to look away, which in the end will make the most difference. The fear of nuclear war is real. The fear of the uncertainty of our future, especially considering the uncertainty of our past, is real. But the people in Ukraine are at war right now. They need you to be aware, but not joke about their situation. It is a hard habit to break, because we are conditioned to do this, but it is a habit we must break if we want to see real change.

It has been three weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. Protest through your own knowledge of the world around you. Stop scrolling. Get angry. Say something.