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New York gets the jitters

We shouldn't organise our lives around dodgy terror alerts.

Alan Miller

Topics Politics

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While the Culture Wars in the USA aimed to repose Columbus Day as a memorial to the rape and pillage of Dead White Males, now it appears there has been a new turn: it is presented as a period of ‘high alert’, and a time for us all to be very scared.

It was reported that New York was targeted for an attack last weekend – and most likely on Friday 7 and Sunday 9 October – although it wasn’t clear how accurate this information was. The Department of Homeland Security’s website informed that ‘officials cannot seem to agree if that gathered information is credible’ (1). Indeed, Washington disputed the credibility of the announcements and there has been considerable speculation about the reliability of the source (2).

It seems as though the tip-off came from an informant who has spent time in Afghanistan – who suggested a plot involving as many as 19 people was in place to plant explosives on New York’s subway system. Three suspects were arrested this week in Iraq as a part of the surveillance. When questioned about these claims, one of the suspects reportedly ‘failed some parts of a polygraph test, though appeared to be telling the truth in response to questions on the alleged plot’ (3).

Heading down to Penn Station on Friday, I was upset to learn that there had been some kind of ‘terror threat’. It transpired after several hours that the threatening object was, in fact, a soda. Well, a soda with ‘some green liquid’. Rather than being embarrassed by the whole debacle, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly reiterated that they did the right thing, even though Kelly conceded that it was ‘a prank’ (1).

Bloomberg put it most clearly when he explained: ‘If I am going to make a mistake, you can rest assured it is going to be on the side of being cautious.’ (2) When Washington cast doubts on the issue, Ray Kelly went on Fox News on Sunday to say that the threat that a terror plotter was in the USA was real. Meanwhile, a counter-terror official, who was briefed about the threat by Homeland Security authorities and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the intelligence did not reflect ‘on-the-ground, detailed, pre-surveillance’ methods consistent with credible information. Rather, the official said, the intelligence was similar to ‘what can be found on the internet and a map of New York City’ (3).

Washington had also stoked the Columbus Day fear campaign, with a release of information about an intercepted letter from al-Qaeda’s number two to al-Zarqawi, head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, about aims of violence and statehood (4).

It’s not just the establishment harping on about how scared we should be. In fact, today the discussion is not so much whether we should live in fear, but which fear we should worry about most. TruthOut.org, a site that is critical of Bush’s war on terror, argues that he is not doing enough with regard to Asian Bird Flu, which ‘could kill millions’ (5).

These incidents represent a corrosive and debilitating dynamic that seems to have seized the Western world. When Mayor Bloomberg tells us that we can ‘rest assured’ that he will be erring on the side of caution, rather than feeling reassured, we should be very concerned indeed.

We are witnessing the reorganisation of everyday life around fear – especially in the light of the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, anchor Bob Schieffer’s summing up on CBS News’ Face the Nation last week was informative. While lambasting Mayor Bloomberg for ‘buying his way into politics’, Schieffer applauded his speedy response to the terror threats – comparing it to the sluggishness of the government after Katrina (4).

But rather than feeling more safe and secure, we are worrying ourselves more. Constant tannoy announcements on the subway and on the airwaves telling us, like some World War Two announcement, ‘If you see something – say something’, just confirm the idea that we should be perpetually on our guard. One commentator went as far to say that ‘if you see someone in a long coat that is bulky, tell someone’.

While many people just absorb this as another hassle within a crowded day, it can have a broader destablising effect. A handful of terrorists are actually achieving their goal of terrorising us if we end up reorganising our whole existence around perceived risk. Laws get rewritten, bag searches and checkpoints installed in a climate of panic. We need a sober discussion about how to organise our lives – not a paranoid and frantic knee-jerk response to our own nightmare scenarios.

Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon.

(1) National Terror Alert website

(2) ‘Subway Terror Threat Is an Attack Imminent? Officials disagree on Threat’s Credibility’, Brian Ross, ABC News, 7 October 2005

(3) 3rd Suspect Nabbed in Subway Terrorist Plot, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press

(4) US Snags Al Qaeda No 2’s letter to Zarqawi, Brett Baier, FOX News, 7 October 2005

(5) Has time run out? The coming avian flu pandemic, Mike Davis, TomDispatch.com

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Topics Politics

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