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Terror and the T

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Terror and the T

With loudspeaker warnings, the MBTA puts citizens on alert and wary passengers report an outbreak of the heebie-jeebies

By Deborah Fineblum Raub, Globe Correspondent | July 11, 2004

Taped announcements warning of "suspicious behaviors" and cautioning everyone to "stay calm" ricocheted from the catacomb-like walls of the Park Street T station. My fellow travelers and I cast furtive glances at one another, potential terrorists all, even the elderly woman with the shopping cart full of -- groceries?

Sadly, we were the very same people who'd been exchanging smiles and even the occasional pleasantry minutes earlier out in the sunshine.

Since the MBTA's "See something? Say something" campaign, launched May 4, such warnings over the public address systems at T stations have become commonplace, running every 10 minutes or so day and night.

"It was weird at first to hear them, but it was weird the first time I had to take off my shoes going through security at the airport," shrugged Bill Davidson of Brookline, passing through Park Street. "Pretty soon I guess we'll get used to it."

Green "C" rider Robin Leone of Allston agreed. "It just kind of threw me the first time; I thought something had gone wrong. I was thinking that it's in my nature to call attention to something that looks suspicious. But for people whose nature is to just ignore something that might be sitting there unattended, I think the announcements might be a good thing."

Or not, says Boston commuter John Freemont, who lives in Stoughton. "I feel like I'm being terrorized by the antiterrorism announcements," he says. "The first time I heard it, I honestly thought we were in the middle of a security threat at that moment, like we better start running."

Part of a statewide Transit Watch Program, begun in May by Governor Mitt Romney, the debut of the broadcasts was accompanied by 250,000 copies of a brochure that urged MBTA riders to "Trust your instincts," 2,500 "See something? Say something" buttons for employees and riders, and nearly 1,000 signs on trains, on buses, and in subway stations. One, featuring an average Joe in a tie, proclaims "Security isn't about wearing a uniform." Another pairs a wholesome-looking woman with the words "Peace means sometimes you have to speak up."

The recorded announcements have featured Romney's voice as well as those of the state's Secretary of Transportation Daniel Grabauskas and top-ranking MBTA officials and are translated into Spanish. The governor's voice says, "We rely on your eyes, ears, and information to protect our security." MBTA Police Chief Joseph Carter tells us: "At the MBTA, you're a valued customer and a critical observer of people, places, and things." And this from Grabauskas: "Security on our trains, buses, and boats has never been more important. . . . We ask you to keep your eyes open for suspicious activity, abandoned packages, or unaccompanied luggage."

MBTA top cop Carter says that, with the Democratic National Convention rolling into town in a couple of weeks and this spring's deadly train bombing in Spain still in people's minds, officials and the public alike are concerned about the vulnerability of public transportation. The multipronged campaign (check out those bomb-resistant trash bins and random searches) could save lives, he said. "We're actively recruiting the people who use the system -- that's 2 million eyes and 2 million ears each day that can be alert to potential danger."

The immediate goal: increased awareness of unattended luggage or suspicious behavior. Feedback, Carter says, has been "generally very good."

Passengers who relaxed their vigilance enough to answer a few questions expressed a range of reactions from appreciation to anger.

"I was a little surprised, even though you hear it at the airport all the time," Ron Cieciuch of Brookline said while riding a Green "C" train. "But with the convention coming, people are a little worried. I guess I don't really find it intrusive, but one way for people to help each other out."

"I guess, with everything that's been going on, I kind of expected it," said Ryan Park, a visitor from Los Angeles waiting for a Green "B" train. "I guess hearing them does make me feel I should be a little more aware of my surroundings."

One rider questioned their effectiveness. "The problem is, first of all, when you ride the T pretty much everybody looks suspicious, so who do you single out?" asked Doreen Springer of Brockton. "But the bigger problem is, even if you find someone doing something clearly suspicious, who do you turn him in to? There are no MBTA personnel on these platforms."

"I can't even hear what they're saying," groused Keith Yarid, a Boston commuter from Weymouth waiting in Park Street Station. "All I hear is mumbling or a piercing sound. The T needs to spend some money on a good PA system."

A passenger with experience in other parts of the world saw things from a different perspective.

"[MBTA officials] have a real challenge because in America we have a culture where people are taught to mind their own business," said Gil Yehuda, commuting from Sharon to Boston. "If we see something, we look the other way, because it's none of our business. In Israel, they've learned to make dangerous looking things and people their business. Now we have to, too. We have to teach ourselves to notice things that don't seem right and to report it even if we're pretty sure it's just a dropped bag or a lost package. We have no choice anymore. That's what these announcements are telling us."

April Phillips of Quincy finds herself on the fence. "Initially I was a little creeped out by the announcements. They felt like an invasion of privacy, and you're used to having a sense of security, that nobody will bother you. But at this time you're also concerned about safety. My only question is: Where is it going to stop?"

The T is tight-lipped on details of what the "See Something? Say Something" campaign has turned up in terms of terrorist-related information. If T officials have seen anything dramatic, they aren't saying.

They do say that when calls come in, they investigate.

"Of course, we dispatch someone immediately," said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

And given the greater awareness that passengers seem to be showing by the increased calls to security, Pesaturo said the plan for the airborne warnings is "to continue playing them indefinitely."

From The Boston Globe

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