Volume 17 • Issue 11 / August 06 - 12, 2004


Learning to live with fear

For the last three years, few of us living or working in Lower Manhattan were able to go through our daily routines without the thought of a terrorist attack in the back of our minds. Somehow though, many of us carried on and were able to keep those thoughts distant. That all was jolted Sunday, when Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security, announced that Al Qaeda had been exploring plans to run truck bombs into several financial institutions, including the New York Stock Exchange on Wall St. and Citigroup, which has a building in Tribeca.

Distant fears once again became immediate for many.

Inside the head of a Lower Manhattan resident in the blur of the latest terror threats: Thank God the government is protecting us and releasing timely information about terrorist threats that they have received. We’ll hold their feet to the fire if they’re asleep at the switch again. We who have been hit twice in the past twelve years desperately need better protection. But was the information timely, or many years old? If it was many years old, is there evidence that Al Qaeda had updated it? Does it matter? Are we less likely or more likely to be hit because the information is old? How much of this is politics through manipulation of threat levels right after the Democratic convention? How many more times will we be subjected to these government alarms before the elections? Is Bush just playing his terrorism trump card trying to make Kerry look smaller? Should I tell the kids about the latest threat data? What do I tell them? Should I get out of town for the Republican convention or stay to protest? Or maybe hedge – send the kids out of town and I’ll stay to protest. What’s our emergency plan? Am I close enough to pick my child up quickly? Does the babysitter have a cell phone? Where do we all meet if we have to evacuate separately? Will I be free-associating like this about terror for the rest of my life?

In some ways, the warnings from the feds were the most useful to date. They were specific. It helps no one when Ridge or Attorney General John Ashcroft say to be more alert because they have more reason to think there will be some sort of attack somewhere, maybe soon, but oh yeah, don’t be afraid to travel, shop or go to work. Since these useless warnings often coincide with a news cycle when the John Kerry campaign is picking up steam or when there is an embarrassing revelation about the Bush administration, a logical conclusion is that the color threat change is political.

Ridge did make a mistake with the most recent warning when he didn’t tell the public on the first day that the surveillance of financial institutions had taken place a few years ago. Al Qaeda reportedly takes years to plan attacks, so warning the public was probably prudent, but withholding the information only adds to the administration’s credibility problems.

But people working in these buildings and nearby residents have a right to know about specific threats. If an attack is being planned, making a threat public could stymie the plot.

The sight of more automatic weapons and checkpoints in Lower Manhattan does not feel comforting. That’s because we are not yet used to it. We’re still learning how to live with fear.

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