MARLBORO, N.J. — The bus was on its way to its local stop Monday morning when riders felt something was wrong.
A young man sat on the bus holding a clock. He seemed nervous, especially when he dropped it, riders told police.
Someone called New Jersey Transit, who called in Marlboro police to investigate. A bomb squad and K-9 unit rolled in as officers shut down both sides of Route 9, where the bus sat on the shoulder.
The man didn’t have a bomb, Marlboro Capt. Fred Reck said. The clock was just a clock. Yet the false alarm comes amid a heightened alert against terrorist attacks after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and the attacks in Paris.
“Given the state of things, they ended up contacting NJ Transit,” Reck said.
Public tension about a terror attack is palpable, a new poll found. The Rutgers-Eagleton poll found eight in 10 respondents fear another terrorist attack is imminent in the United States. Seven in 10 worry it will happen in or near New Jersey.
In some cases, that heightened fear has translated into higher rates of reporting suspicious packages or activity. NJ Transit has seen an uptick in the number of tips in the last couple of weeks since the recent attacks, according to spokeswoman Lisa Torbic.
New Jersey State Police did not have numbers about suspicious activity tips immediately available, but the agency reaffirmed in a statement the importance of reporting suspicious activity even if just to err on the side of caution.
“Without a doubt, this was a good call,” the department stated in a Facebook post about the Marlboro bus incident. “News agencies reported that a neighbor of (Syed Rizwan) Farook failed to report suspicious activity before she noticed the attack in San Bernardino.”
The department added: If you see something, say something “and let the law enforcement professionals determine if the person or the item poses a real threat.”
One of the difficulties with detecting a threat is that there aren’t always clear-cut warning signs to show someone’s at risk of executing a terror plot of a mass shooting. The alleged shooters in San Bernardino were a couple who appeared to live a double life as police say they were collecting guns, ammunition and bombs in preparation for the mass killing — shocking even friends and family members.
While the FBI believes the San Bernardino shooting was a terror attack, the causes of other mass shootings can be even harder to detect. The majority of mass shootings involve white males whose ages and circumstances widely vary, according to data collected by Mother Jones magazine over the last three decades. Some of the perpetrators had histories of mental illness, but that alone does not offer a cause.
Of the 73 mass shootings in the last three decades, none of them occurred in New Jersey. In fact, New Jersey is one of 12 states that haven’t experienced a mass shooting under Mother Jones’ definition since the 1980s.
Still, the public is experiencing a wave of fear in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting and the Paris attacks, according to Robert Murrett, deputy director of the Institute of National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University in New York.
“We’ve been going up and down (in sensitivity) since the 9/11 attacks, though it’s not as sensitive as it was in the fall of 2001,” Murrett said.
For those who see anything suspicious, Murrett says the best defense is to follow the “see something, say something” mantra report any unusual activity, but to use common sense.
“It’s important that we don’t underreact or overreact to any incident,” Murrett said. “A certain amount of common sense is called for, and I think on the whole we’ve been pretty good (in the national response).”
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