How We've Changed

It begins with an innocent recommendation, passed along by a preschool headmaster to the parents of one her pupils. You've got to check out the Quabbin Reservoir, she says, and so they do, and because they are devout Muslims, the mother wears a headscarf on their hike. A few dozen bald eagles nest in the surrounding forest, but to someone watching the couple that day, the sight most worth recording is this black woman and her Middle Eastern husband. The family returns home. Then, days later, a knock on the door: government agents — FBI, apparently — wanting to know exactly what they had been up to during their visit to the aquifer that supplies Boston with much of its drinking water.

We all know all too well what happened last September 11. What is harder to define is how we've been affected by what has happened in the year since, how the surveillance and the ever-present security and the stubborn uncertainty alter the experience of living in Boston. John Roberts, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, offers the story of the Muslim family's trip to the Quabbin as a parable about the dark side of our heightened vigilance. But there are others: about private citizens volunteering to patrol the harbor, or the neighborhood watch group in Hyde Park that felt the need to expand its purview from keeping an eye on one anothers' houses to distributing tips for surviving terrorist attacks. About material the government has yanked from the Boston Public Library. About Mohammed, who now believes he's safer being known as Mike.

Maybe your race and religion don't make you a candidate for profiling — and maybe you've noticed it just the same. Maybe you're like Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans, and you've measured the drop in tourism by the minutes it has shaved off your daily commute. Maybe you've taken in a game at Fenway, and it's seemed that there are more cops on the concourse; maybe you've been like Peter Welsh, the city's chief of policy and planning, and you've caught yourself wondering between pitches: What if something happens here?

“That never happened before,” says Welsh. But then, before this year, the preparations for the Boston Pops' Fourth of July concert never included welding shut manhole covers on the Esplanade. For some, it's those little details that remind; for others, the difference is felt every day. For all of us, Boston has changed.

We learned right away that the terrorists hijacked two of their missiles here, and it wasn't long before we found out that some of them had also lived among us, blending in, plotting. As other cities scrambled to defend against unseen threats, our reaction was shaped by Boston's direct connection to the hijackings. Grief for some of us came with a measure of guilt: If the tragedy was supposed to bring communities together as families, then ours was the one that had left its gun cabinet unlocked.

We rushed to erect makeshift fortifications, using concrete dividers, wooden police barricades, old bicycle racks, whatever was handy. That few complained about the handmade signs directing foot traffic at the entrance to City Hall — or the cheap card tables and metal detectors inside — doesn't suggest that their effect was insignificant. “People don't like City Hall, but many architects do, because when it was initially conceived, it was considered a very bold attempt to create a modern spirit of publicness,” says George Thrush, chairman of the architecture department at Northeastern. “Now, with this ramshackle security assembly, the lobby resembles a garage, as opposed to the vestibule of a house. It removes the possibility of catharsis or transcendence by making these spaces serve purely practical purposes.”

In the office buildings, the cordoning off continued. Guards were deployed to lobbies and to other floors. Atop the Hancock tower, the observatory was rendered off-limits; below the Prudential Center, attendants checked the trunks of cars pulling into the garage. Tankers of liquefied natural gas, no longer anonymous, sailed into the harbor under helicopter and fireboat escort. Two hundred fifty bombproof trash cans were ordered for the T, and while the MBTA awaited their arrival, the existing bins were either stoppered with duct tape or carted away.

We knew these steps were being taken to ensure our security, but sometimes they have sent a different message. As the garbage piled up, Charles Euchner, executive director of Harvard's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, thought the T seemed seedier, not better protected. “The thing that struck me during those first weeks,” he says, “was how we immediately adopted some measures just to respond for the sake of responding. When you had to wait in line for some guy in a security company uniform to sign you in — that didn't make me feel safer at all. But it did remind me that we live in dangerous times, and we don't know when the next strike might occur.” At the airport, where the need for the checkpoints is certain, we are no more at ease. Is that dark-skinned man acting strangely? We're ashamed by the thought — and incredulous when the attendant ignores him, opting to search an elderly woman instead.

Those charged with preventing another attack have had their own reasons for feeling on edge. With the teletype machine at police headquarters transmitting terror warnings from Washington, officers are now frequently instructed to bring along full tactical gear — including their new gas masks — on routine patrols. Many members of the force have also received refresher courses in weapons of mass destruction. “They've had the training before, but we went into more detail,” says Evans. “When you have an alert, for the average person, that increases anxiety. But for an officer who understands the full potential, it takes on a different level of meaning.”

This month, Boston is expected to be selected to host a pilot version of a new federal initiative called Operation TIPS. The acronym stands for Terrorism Information and Prevention System, and its basic premise is this: Because of the nature of their jobs, certain people — truckers, bus drivers — are well positioned to notice unusual activity in public places (mail carriers and meter readers were dropped due to civil liberties concerns). And when that happens, they ought to have a convenient toll-free number they can use to pass along what they've seen.

In Massachusetts, we've had our own tip line for six months now. Calls to 888-USA-5458 have been coming in steadily, though so far none has led to an active terrorist investigation. “What we're doing is asking 6 million Massachusetts residents to act as our eyes and ears. We're asking them to phone with any information, and the police will follow up on it,” says David Goggin, spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety. Which means that the protagonists of John Roberts's reservoir parable might want to think twice about snapping photos of, say, the Bourne Bridge.

“The government is turning private citizens into the front line of the war against terrorism,” says Juval Aviv, president and CEO of Interfor, an international corporate security firm. “You're putting a burden on people who are really not qualified to play that role, and there will be abuses.” Nine months ago, Aviv opened a Boston branch in anticipation of demand from the city's financial services firms for background checks on customers. “When a guy comes from Pakistan or Nigeria and says he wants to open an account, the bank is going to ask him for three forms of government-issued ID,” says Aviv. “Then, if he says he has $10,000 to deposit, he has to explain where he got the money from. It can take 10, 14 days until he's cleared.” Of course, the new anti-money laundering rules don't apply only to patrons from other countries: The same could happen to you, should the teller find you suspicious. Or perhaps your Internet service provider, following the guidelines set forth in the U.S.A. Patriot Act, will voluntarily turn over the contents of your e-mails to federal investigators, who now also have the power to ask your employer for access to your voice-mail messages.

Everyone has been deputized, and everyone is under scrutiny: Even the librarians are watching. Last fall, the United States Government Printing Office ordered the Boston Public Library to destroy a CD-ROM deemed to contain sensitive data. When I visited the BPL to see the shelf where Source Area Characteristics of Large Public Surface-Water Supplies in the Conterminous United States: An Information Resource for Source-Water Assessment, 1999 once resided, the woman at the government documents desk referred me to the library's press officer — who, after providing the information, apparently alerted the authorities.

That afternoon, an official from the Government Printing Office tracked me down at my office. He'd heard I'd been asking around about the recalled CD-ROM, he said, and wanted to make sure I had my facts straight.

When our neighbors aren't spying on us, a machine might be — or will be, once the kinks are worked out. A 90-day test of facial recognition software at Logan Airport found the system to suffer not only from dubious constitutionality, as civil libertarians had already charged, but also from spotty performance. Local colleges and universities face a January 30 deadline for plugging their foreign enrollees into a computerized national tracking system, which will require administrators to inform the Immigration and Naturalization Service about any changes to a student's standing — whether he or she drops out or simply violates the honor code. School officials complain the regulations will be difficult to implement on time, onerous to fulfill once in place, and restrictive enough to scare away future prospects. At least in Boston, that last concern has proven unfounded: Based on the projections of area admissions officers, the city will once again be host to one of the nation's largest concentrations of international students as the academic year begins this month.

And yet the feeling lingers. As renovations to the State House proceed, there's talk that the grand front entrance will remain sealed once construction is completed, that the capitol will be safer if visitors shuffle in through a checkpoint at the side door. On days when the wind is out of the west, takeoffs from Logan fly across the Boston skyline, and people still flinch at the sight of planes climbing above the rooftops. There continue to be those who know, as Islamic Society of Boston project director Yousef Abou-Allaban knows, that so long as airport guards are randomly checking passengers' shoes, “mine will always be checked.”

Just when it seems to have grown quiet, boom — it hits us again. In June, someone set off a firecracker at a construction site in the Financial District; the next month, a gas explosion destroyed several floors of a biotech development company in Cambridge. On both occasions, bystanders heard the blasts and immediately thought: bomb. And so it is, one year later: In our minds, even our unfinished buildings have become targets.