"If you see something, say something.” To anyone who uses public transportation, it’s a familiar refrain. Yet while the constant warnings to beware of one’s fellow travelers are but a sign of the times, the message is ambiguous. How do you know what qualifies as “something”? As a subway commuter, I regularly see (and hear and smell) some pretty strange things.
Not to mention the fact that any well-planned attack would presumably be disguised at every turn to mimic normality. Once, stuck at an airport for several hours when my flight was delayed, I found myself sitting next to a Catholic priest. We talked—about the work he was doing in Uganda, the books we were reading. We were getting along famously, until he asked the dreaded question: “Will you watch my bags while I get something to eat?”
I had a moment of crisis. He was no longer a complete stranger, but I had known him for only a couple of hours. I suddenly realized that his Roman collar, inviting me to trust its wearer, would actually be the perfect disguise for a criminal. All he had done was ask a common courtesy, but the warnings to be vigilant had been so incessant that I was almost at a loss as to how to respond.
Reluctantly, I agreed to watch his things. The longer he was gone, the more I worried. When he finally came back (“Sorry, the line was so long!”), I felt a mixture of relief, resentment, and even a bit of Catholic guilt for having doubted him.
In trying to figure out what counts as unusual, it’s easy to become suspicious of everyone and everything. I once came across a black plastic disc that looked like a miniature hubcap sitting on a subway platform. It seemed harmless enough, but the fact that I couldn’t identify it made me wary. When a D.C. Metro employee walked by, I pointed it out.
“That thing,” I said gesturing toward the disc, “has been sitting there, and I don’t know what it is.” I was acutely aware of sounding idiotic. But afterwards I felt better, my conscience clear.
Another time, I took the London Underground from Heathrow Airport. The train was crowded with people and luggage, and we were packed in tightly for the first few stops. As more passengers got off, several of us noticed a seemingly unattended black bag lodged underneath one of the seats.
Slowly, we eyed one another, trying to determine if the owner was among us. Finally, someone asked if the bag belonged to anyone. We all shook our heads.
When the train pulled into a station and the doors opened, I faced a decision. Should I stay on the train, resigned to my fate? Should I abandon my fellow passengers? Should I sound the alarm and start shouting for everyone to get off?
Just then two women—they appeared to be mother and daughter—came sidling down the car toward the emergency phone. The train moved out of the station, and I watched the women’s progress intently. As they approached the phone, the younger one kept facing the inside of the car, blocking her mother from view as she picked up the receiver and had a brief, discreet conversation.
The other passengers maintained an apparent nonchalance that I took to be the result of either calculated cooperation in a rapidly unfolding plot, ignorance, or simply sullen British apathy. Apart from a few furtively exchanged glances, no one acknowledged that anything unusual was happening, and no one mentioned the black bag again.
At the next stop, a police officer boarded the train, spotted the bag, picked it up, and disembarked without saying a word to anyone. As we pulled away from the platform, I watched him speaking into a walkie-talkie, presumably informing his colleagues that the bag had been secured. It was a seamless performance. I’ll never know whether the bag contained a high-powered bomb or a bunch of dirty socks, but I must say I was impressed.
And I was reassured—reassured that amidst a sea of distrust, people really were looking out for each other. Or perhaps they were just looking out for themselves. Either way, I benefited.