I was recently on a trip to New York City to visit friends and attend an alumni event. More about that perhaps later. But in truth the most impressionable part of the four days was my new appreciation of how seriously our non-airport transportation companies, particularly in this case Amtrak, is taking the threat of unspecified harm to levels I have never seen before in this country.
We’re all rather blasé these days, it seems to me, about airport security. You know the drill. Stand in a long line, get your boarding pass and ID checked a couple times, go through a brief-but-frantic strip-down and de-pack of clothing, shoes, small toiletries and electronics, and then re-assemble yourself and off you go to find Starbucks and your gate. Recent reports that the TSA misses somewhere in the neighborhood of 97% of intentionally planted bad things sheds a somewhat “Saturday Night Live,” head-shaking, shoulder-shrugging light on the entire proceedings.
Many young people I’ve met recently don’t even know why we take off our shoes in the security line. They are astonished when I tell them that yes, shortly after 9/11 a young man named Richard Reid actually did attempt to light two bombs made of 10 total ounces of plastic explosive hidden in both his sneakers on a flight from Paris to Miami. Fortunately, the sweat from his feet kept the gunpowder from detonating. Hence from then on an entire nation of folks in stocking feet heads through the metal detectors. Like the Maginot Line in France, we’re always preparing for the last attack. The best intelligence out today is that home-grown right-wing extremists are the biggest threat to security by orders of magnitude.
All that being said, it had been a while since I had traveled on an American train, Amtrak to be specific, and even longer since I had spent two and a half hours waiting for one, this time in South Station, Boston. My hyper-caution got me there so early in the morning that Starbucks hadn’t even opened yet (thank God for Au Bon Pan, ten feet away, which was doing a land-office business at 6:45 am). After a couple quick strolls around to enjoy the massive ads for T-Mobile and check out all the fast food options, I had a lot of time to sit and wait and people-watch and then really pay attention to the Public Service Announcements (PSAs) that were playing pretty consistently on big screens on the wall facing the trains (not yet installed in the above borrowed image).
Keeping in mind I am at this moment in Boston, Massachusetts, here’s a list of the topics I learned about that morning, all calmly and cheerfully narrated by Amtrak employees (or people who really did look like Amtrak employees, maybe with just a little cosmetic assistance):
- Transportation security (“Don’t pet the dogs; they’re working”)
- Txt-a-tip on your mobile (“See something, say something”)
- Trespassing on railroad tracks
- Trolley safety
- Subway and train evacuation in case of an (unspecified) emergency
- Suggestions on how the hearing impaired can submit tips to the police
- Human trafficking
- Earthquake preparedness
Well, this is certainly interesting, I thought, and clearly a thoughtful effort to bring a number of important issues to public attention, particularly with a transportation medium where we still aren’t physically checked, nor is our luggage. I was impressed by the tag line of every PSA, spoken clearly to the camera, by the announcement narrator:
“We are all in this together. Literally.”
Yes, indeed, we are – all together on a large fast-moving vehicle with nowhere to go if the going gets tough. I can see that the collective brain trust of public transportation, perhaps privy to information spared the rest of us, has been spending many of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to inform with scaring, remind without harping, suggest in the most community-spirited way while not driving down ridership. A tall order.
But those useful and informative tips did not prepare me for what I saw when I was waiting at Penn Station in NYC for my return trip home several days later. This time there were a lot of obvious uniformed and non-uniformed security personnel, never intrusive, but clearly On Guard. Once again, I settled in for a wait of some duration (a ticket snafu this time). Again, I watched the unavoidable PSAs hosted by similar Amtrak personnel, and again there were the short focused messages for passengers. But this time there were grimmer texts amid the mix:
- Where and how to hide in the waiting areas if and when you hear shots
- What text address to have pre-programmed into your mobile in order to alert law enforcement to the fact that there is a terrorist event in progress
- And, most chilling, the one that suggested one should “only respond directly to the threat if you are in eminent physical danger” followed by a clip of two worried passengers sharing a quick conversation and then focusing on the man on the right making a split second decision, picking up his duffel bag, and then giving it his best “Hail Mary” pass off-stage, suggestively at the baddy who might be disarmed or at least briefly distracted by such an action.
Now that, ladies and gentleman, was sobering indeed to me. And this from a girl who started her educational life with “duck and cover” in elementary school during the height of the Cold War. Do we really live in a time when the people in charge believe that one good use of our pre-departure minutes is helpful advice as to when to try to be a hero and when not? I guess so, ‘cuz that’s what’s out there these days. It makes it just a little harder to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.