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WELL, WE live in nervous times.
The terrorists arrive that awful Sept. 11 morning, and the nation spends the past two years trying to cope. The government investigates shadowy places where it never previously stuck its nose, and the civil libertarians shudder. Is Big Brother getting too snoopy? A 12-year-old kid at Boys' Latin researches a paper on the Bay Bridge, and suddenly the FBI's Joint Terrorist Task Force shows up in the headmaster's office.
You could laugh if you didn't know the jangled nerves that set off such a reaction.
This fall, Dorsey Boyle, a middle-school teacher at Boys' Latin, the venerable Lake Avenue private school, assigned his classes a series of research papers. The first, on some famous individual. Seventh-grader John McLean picked Abner Doubleday, the baseball legend. The second, on some famous structure. McLean picked the Bay Bridge.
"He went to the Internet to research as much as he could," Bruce McLean, John's dad, was saying last week. He laughed a little ruefully. "He wanted to know how it was built and financed, how much concrete and steel went into it. But he was having trouble getting information. So Mr. Boyle told him a couple of Web sites where he could ask questions."
One was a Bay Bridge Web site. The other, the Maryland Transportation Authority's.
Several days later, John's mom, Rosemary McLean, arrived at Boys' Latin at the end of the school day. Boyle spotted her on the parking lot.
"You're John McLean's mother, right?" he said.
"The infamous John McLean?" he asked. The words were a little surprising, but Boyle had a twinkle in his eye. "Are you here because of what happened?"
John plays on the seventh-grade football team. His mother thought maybe he'd been hurt at practice that day.
"I'm just here to pick him up," she said. "What's happened? What's he been doing?"
Just writing a little paper about a bridge, that's all - and getting red-flagged by the government because of the questions he was asking.
When the McLeans talked about it that evening, they still had very little information. As it happens, John McLean shares a name (though not the same spelling) with the Bruce Willis character in the terrorist movie Die Hard. Did some FBI investigator stumble into this and think it was a terrorist's taunting alias?
As it also happens, Bruce McLean, who works for Mercantile Trust, coaches baseball. "I put the kids through a pretty good regimen," he says. "I go back to the old Oriole way." Discipline, hard work. A friend, photographer Harry Connolly, gave Bruce McLean a nickname, which has been used in light-hearted e-mail messages: Saddam. Did the FBI add that comic moniker to their list of suspicions?
"But the truth is," says Bruce McLean, "we were laughing about the whole thing. In fact, I said to John, 'I have to talk to you.' He said, 'What did I do wrong?' I said, 'I want you to be perfectly honest with me, son. Do you know where Osama bin Laden is?' We made it a whole joke. Because you have to laugh at it."
In an uptight time, laughter helps.
When the Boys' Latin middle school headmaster, Rick Brocato, went to school the previous morning, he had an unexpected visitor: Jim Drotar of the FBI's Joint Terrorist Task Force.
"We need verification," Drotar said. "About someone who claims he's a student here. It's about the Chesapeake Bay Bridge."
Brocato, relaxing on a couch in his office the other day, laughed about it. "I knew some of the boys were investigating bridges," he said. "The FBI had initials, but not a name. The initials were J.M." (The FBI had no tie-in to the Bruce Willis character, or any "Saddam" suspicions.)
"Somewhere in his questioning," said Brocato, "John had mentioned Boys' Latin. And the FBI guy said, 'All I need to know is, is he a student here?' He said terrorists can impersonate people to get information. I assured him John McLean was a student, and he was doing a paper on the bridge. He said, 'You need to know, students need to identify themselves.' They're very sensitive about bridges and tunnels."
All of this leaves one question: How did the FBI stumble onto the information? Are there agents who spend their days monitoring millions of private messages?
"In today's environment," says Baltimore FBI spokesman Barry Maddox, "we take all leads very seriously. We had to make sure this was a legitimate school project. The kinds of questions he was asking about the bridge, we have to have a sense of caution.
"But, no, we don't sit around monitoring e-mails. This was based on a referral from the Transportation Authority. They're the ones who red-flagged it, based on the questions they were getting. We followed up. We have enough work without checking e-mails."
In a nervous time, the mistaken identity's merely a rueful little laugh.
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