(Posted by Jeff Porten)
Summertime, and the living is orange.
I am on the down elevator to the Washington Metro trains, and an abandoned water bottle is on the floor in the back. Upright, maybe an inch or two of water in it. Clear sport bottle with a closed spout, no label.
This is not out of the ordinary. This is not uncommon. This is par for the course at the Metro stop for the National Zoo, where among the 20,000 tourists that passed through today you have to expect some cretins who treat the nation’s capital as their own personal trashcan. This is mundane detritus.
There are plenty of chemical agents that dissolve in clear liquids. There are many such chemicals that aerosolize. Pinholes cannot be be seen from a standing height. And if I were the architect of a terrorist attack, what better way to ensure that my vector would stay undisturbed than to abandon it in plain sight, in an everyday object, as common trash that no one will deign to pick up?
Fifteen seconds have passed, the elevator is one-quarter of the way down to the platform, and I have considered the above. For the rest of the trip, I balance the following:
- The odds that this is in fact not an abandoned bottle of water. Estimate: nonzero, but exceedingly tiny.
- The odds that reporting this bottle of water, as we are asked to do in this time of extra vigilance (without much guidance as to what to be vigilant for), will tie me up for the rest of the evening, or cause the temporary closing of the station, or otherwise create a snowball effect that is far worse than the danger of a bottle of water. Estimate: low, but greater than “tiny”.
The doors are opening. I have decided to leave well enough alone.
At that moment, the overhead speakers are activated with a systemwide announcement reminding us that the Department of Homeland Security has raised all public transit systems to Code Orange (the rest of the nation remaining magically Yellow), and we should be certain to report any unattended items or anything else out of the ordinary.
The bottle of water is a perfectly ordinary unattended item. I report it. The station manager appears utterly unconcerned, and as I board the escalator descending to the train platform, he still has not left his booth.