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July 15, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor

Our best defense against domestic terror:
The promise of economic advancement

by John Avlon

Last week's coordinated terrorist attacks in London, the capital of our closest ally in the war on terror, sent a shudder of recognition through the hearts of New Yorkers. The attacks occurred across the Atlantic, but they hit close to this city where I live and work.

We New Yorkers have experienced the early-morning terrorist attack before. The first plane hit the twin towers at 8:46 a.m., and the earliest detonation reported in yesterday's London attack was at 8:51. We know the numbing feeling of the endless first day, of the search for missing loved ones, fearing the worst, of coming home covered in ash and soot, having seen the unimaginable.

The exportation of suicide bombings on buses and subways from the Middle East to the heart of the West has another deep significance for New Yorkers. This has been the latent nightmare scenario since September 11, 2001.

Nightmare scenario

We are a city of eight million people, and more than half as many as that ride the subways each day. Our city and economy depend on public transit to a unique extent. The opportunities for attack along the 656 miles of track and 468 stations are too numerous to mention. New York subways were still crowded last week, but there was a renewed wariness as comfortable assumptions were again thrown into question.

"It took me 20 minutes longer to leave the house today," a woman named Michelle, who declined to give her last name, said as she departed the subway station in Union Square. "I work for the Port Authority. I was in the Trade Center. I know it can happen here."

The miracle is that so far it has not.

Immediately after the London attacks were reported, New York City and State went on full alert. New York always stands at "orange" or "high alert" on the Department of Homeland Security's terror alert list, and the defenses in place are much more extensive than most Americans realize.

For example, thousands of radioactive pagers have been placed with personnel in sensitive spots throughout New York City by the New York Police Department. These small devices, the size of a typical pager, are sensitive enough to register if a passerby has recently had a medical exam involving radiation. "Biowatch" instruments are likewise placed in strategic spots throughout the city, including mass transit areas. These can detect particles in the air that could signal contamination with biological or chemical agents.

At a crowded press conference called in the great hall of Grand Central Station, Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg detailed New York's response to the London attacks. Midnight shifts of police officers have been indefinitely extended, to double the number of officers on duty during the morning commute. Armed patrols and K-9 units have been deployed, and the governor signed an executive order giving all police authority on commuter trains, which normally are under the sole jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority police.

While expressing sympathy and solidarity with our strongest allies in the war on terror, Messrs. Bloomberg and Pataki both were forthright in saying such an attack could happen here, even with our best efforts in place. Such attacks "could be replicated in our city," the mayor said, "but let me assure you we're doing everything in our power [to stop it]."

Wake-up call

At the same press conference, New York State's homeland security director, James Kallstrom, stated that he hoped these attacks would serve as a "wake-up call to the national command" - specifically on issues of formulas for distributing Homeland Security dollars, which still are not directed commensurate to the level of threat in such places as New York.

There is also hope that these attacks may wake up those at home who have gone wobbly on the war on terror. Doubt should be banished that terrorists still pose a clear and present danger, and, while the full details of those attacks are not known, such a coordinated assault has all the marks of Al Qaeda.

In a free and open society, potential targets are limitless. No system can fully anticipate the actions of individuals whose minds have been twisted by hatred. Indeed, before the attacks of September 11, New York City subways were the target of at least two such attacks. In 1994 an explosion rocked the subway station at Atlantic Avenue, an incident that outside the war on terror has faded from memory. In 1997 a terrorist attack was foiled, again on a Brooklyn subway, when police officers broke down a Park Slope apartment door to find five nail-studded pipe bombs, assembled by illegal immigrants from the West Bank and ready to be detonated. The plotters were turned in by a conscientious soul who had learned of their plans.

These are dangerous times, but no time in history has been without risk. Mayor Giuliani happened to be in London yesterday, only a few yards from the site of one of the attacks, and he told an interviewer, "This is a difficult time, but the people of London have responded in the exactly right way, with bravery and by moving forward. . . . A lot of our response to September 11 was modeling ourselves as much as we could on the people of London during the Second World War and the incredible way they withstood the attacks during the Battle of Britain."

In combination with that country's painful experience with decades of bombing by the Irish Republican Army, Londoners are relatively adjusted to the constant presence of threat - what we in America now sometimes refer to as "the new normal."

Our best defense

In wondering why a transit attack has not yet happened in America, it may not be naive to suggest that the answer may lie partly in the genius of this country.

Some security analysts have suggested that it is too difficult to replicate all the conditions needed to isolate and twist the minds of young people to turn them into suicide bombers.

Even in America's most heavily Arab and Muslim communities, the process of assimilation and the promise of economic advancement are slowly working, and families have too much hope for a better future to encourage their children to embrace fully the rabid, extremist fervor necessary to slaughter innocent fellow citizens.

Trust in that concept alone cannot keep us safe. But along with endless vigilance in protecting ourselves at home, the presence of freedom's opportunity may have been among our best defenses from domestic attacks so far.

As the subways in London smolder, that thought may offer some comfort as we steel ourselves to ride out this "new normal" on the way to winning the war on terror.


John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001.  He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).


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