9/11 Remembered

Massachusetts State Police Captain Thomas Robbins began his mid-September morning like any other, driving his squad car to the Framingham station and listening to his morning radio show when an unusual broadcast came on. “An airplane has collided into the North Tower of the World Trade Center…” Weird was the first thought that ran through the captain’s mind. “Like most people I thought, that’s really strange, that guy was way off course to LaGuardia, that’s strange, that’s bizarre.” It was 8:50, and by the time Robbins was settled in his office, he remembered, someone came in and told him that the second plane had just hit the South Tower. He imitates putting a bumblebee in a jar, and violently shakes it to illustrate how he felt. “That’s when I knew, that’s when the bumblebee went into the jar and all hell broke loose.”

But what Captain Thomas Robbins didn’t know was that, within a week, Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift would call down the Director of Aviation Security at Logan Airport and assign Robbins to fill the position, placing him at the forefront of security for Logan Airport, and therefore America; a role he likened to an orchestra conductor and an architect, conducting security and crafting new and inventive policies.

He sits attentively in his Boston University Police Department office over looking Harry Agganis Way, and recalls his work following the attacks.

While unexpected, Robbins, 53, says he was well suited for the role. A military veteran, he graduated 1st in his class at the Massachusetts State Police Academy in 1980, and earned his law degree from Suffolk Law School in 1991.

His first days working at Logan were hectic. Again, he conjures up the image of a bee in a glass jar, shaken up, confused.

But he pulls out a faded pad of yellow legal paper and points to the first words written down, ‘Who’s in charge?’ is written in black pen, pressed so firmly into the pad that it’s imprint is still on the next sheet, even after 10 years. “The number one issue that I wrote down when the governor asked me to do this is ‘Who’s in charge?’ because when we look back at nine-one-one, whether it’s the 9/11 commission report or the series that you watch on TV or whatever you read, you can’t help but go ‘who the hell is in charge here?” To highlight his point he lists the organizations that he would conduct, a kind of security orchestra involving Airline companies, the National Guard, the Transportation Security Adminsition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, and MassPort – all with their own concerns and limitations.

But Robbins credits much of the progress made in shaping new security policies to the “bright people” that surrounded him. “The environment that I was put into was really conducive to some great ideas on what we should be doing.” He nods and leans back into his chair. “Some really good people were pushing forward into the wind.”

He makes an example of bag-screening technology. When Logan Airport had applied to the FAA for funding to do 100% bag screenings, they were the first airport in the nation to do so. But the FAA had been slow in certifying the right piece of equipment for the task. Robbins smiles telling the rest of the story, “MassPort said ‘we’re not waiting, we have our own technicians, we have our own engineers and experts, we pick this piece of equipment and we’re going to go ahead and install it, and if you don’t pay us back, that’s too bad.’” As it turns out, the equipment Logan chose was later endorsed by the FAA, and paid for.

“There’s no way it could be the same today.” Robbins states. “Unfortunately what happens is that evil 3-headed monster called bureaucracy gets in the way.” Citing government and oversight agencies, he concedes a point. “To get the same kind of momentum and speed when a good idea comes up, I don’t think you could do it.”

With the attacks of September 11 a decade behind him, Robbins puts his trust in those who have inherited his job in security and policy creation.

“I think we do a damn good job of securing our airports and we did a damn good job in our country, because we haven’t had a second attack.” The lights above flicker as his voice thickens and he intones his colleagues’ efforts in security, but he draws back for a second. “We got lucky a couple of times, don’t get me wrong, Time Square and a couple of other times…” Complacency, Robbins says, is the problem. “you’ve always got to stay ahead… ‘how could they attack us now, what could it be?’ This is the thought process that goes through people like me. Day in and day out we say ‘what could be the next threat?’”

Robbins now works as Chief of the Boston University Police Department, with 50 officers under his command for campus security. He is also working on a book with BU Detective Peter Didomenica. “Genesis to Genocide.” He says the title is. He opens his hands with mock grandiosity and chuckles, but becomes stern almost immediately.

“The real meat of this matter is – I call it biased to atrocity. It’s ethnic and racial profiling, hatred, biased thinking, unconscious bias – us versus them – the whole idea of nations at war, cultures at war…” He takes a breath after painting with such a large brush. “The world didn’t change at 911. Our perception of the world may have changed, but the world itself didn’t. We’ve always been at each other’s throats… it’s not going to end until, on a global scale, we take this seriously.”

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