Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2002/ 15 Adar 5762

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Consumer Reports

Al Qaeda's next target


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- LIKE ANY student of American history, I have reverence for the Liberty Bell and its symbolic significance. Yet, upon reading a Daily News article last Friday about an "unspecified threat" on the 1753 relic, I wondered what exactly Tom Ridge's priorities are in his mission to protect U.S. citizens from another terrorist attack.

According to the News, "The entire historic block around the bell, which includes Independence Hall, was crawling with cops yesterday."

It's true that all monuments, tourist attractions, landmarks and cities are potential targets for Islamic fanatics (or attention-seeking copycats), but does anyone seriously doubt that should another major massacre occur it'll once again be in New York City? Even destroying the U.S. Capitol or White House would pale in comparison to a well-planned assault in midtown Manhattan (or the Lincoln Tunnel), a catastrophe that would devastate the world's economic center. According to Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), chairman of the intelligence committee, there are perhaps 100 Al Qaeda maniacs at large in the U.S., and it's certain they're not just playing pinochle at the local bar.

The specter of Ground Zero Two in New York City must be Mayor Bloomberg's and the Bush administration's paramount domestic concern. Another blast that approximates the damage of Sept. 11 is a nightmare waiting to happen: citizens here took that sucker punch and have recovered far more quickly than one would've expected back in October. But I'm not sure people would bear up as well if another part of the city were leveled. The exodus of residents and businesses would be rapid; the financial condition of the city would probably be in ruins.

I bring this up because 10 days ago my family spent an hour at Penn Station awaiting an Amtrak train down to Baltimore for Presidents' Day weekend. There was no security to speak of, certainly not a squadron of cops or National Guardsmen who ought to be at both Penn and Grand Central stations around the clock. When we trudged to the waiting room with our bags, the woman who's supposed to check tickets just waved us by, and chatted on a cellphone while polishing off a Krispy Kreme donut. While we stood on the line to descend downstairs for the Acela train, nobody's luggage was even glanced at, an astounding and frightening fact, given that a "dirty bomb" could've easily been planted in the underground, with results too horrible to contemplate. Two men behind me, one a fellow Anglo-Saxon, the other black, were just as angry at the nonchalance of Amtrak personnel.

And by the way, when it comes to Amtrak-just like the U.S. Postal Service-there's just one word that'll do: privatize. The railroad network lost $1.1 billion in 2001 and will certainly curtail service in the next year, since it's unlikely that its request for $1.2 billion from the government will be met. I've traveled on Amtrak probably 500 times in the past 30 years, and for short distances it beats flying hands-down. There's no sitting on the runway for an hour; you can walk around at will; and the seats are pretty darn comfortable.

Dan Savage, a syndicated columnist, wrote a terrific op-ed piece for The New York Times on Feb. 20, a testimonial to the charms of this now old-fashioned means of getting from here to there. He said: "Traveling by train, I've spent time with people I would never have met otherwise. Once in Havre, I played poker at 8 o'clock in the morning with an elderly rancher I'd had dinner with on the train the night before. The Empire Builder makes an hourlong morning stop in Havre, and when I got out to stretch my legs, the rancher hurried over, grabbed my hand and asked if I would be so kind as to escort her to a small casino a few blocks from the station. She didn't want to go by herself, she explained, because it isn't ladylike to gamble alone so early in the morning. We talked politics at dinner the night before and in the casino that morning; she was a straight, pro-life Bush supporter, and I am a gay, pro-choice Gore voter, and we got along famously."

Don't talk to me about Britain's muddled results in privatizing their railroads: this is a country, after all, that believes the sun won't come up if Saddam Hussein is trifled with. There are enough smart entrepreneurs in the U.S. who, with proper incentives, could turn Amtrak into a profitable enterprise.

BUT BACK TO THE CURRENT CRISIS

Every day, it seems, some terminal at a major airport is evacuated because of suspicious behavior or outright threats from over-the-edge passengers. It was comical, perhaps, that New Orleans' airport was closed down for five hours because a "suspicious substance" was found in a lavatory, and it turned out to be several containers of gumbo. But there's no such thing as overreaction anymore. The country has, by and large, responded sensibly to the long delays, canceled flights and presence of machine-gun toting soldiers. In fact, criticism that air travel still isn't safe enough-such as that only a fraction of checked baggage is being scrutinized-far outweighs complaints of inconvenience.

So why is there no outrage from the populace about the ticking time bombs at this city's train stations? The local press is lately in a tizzy over Bloomberg's secret weekend getaway in Bermuda 10 days ago, a relative nonissue given the circumstances. The New York Post's Gregg Birnbaum wrote on Feb. 22, in response to Bloomberg's explanation that "My personal life is my personal life": "Not when you're mayor, it isn't. New Yorkers are entitled to more than someone who punches a timecard at City Hall, then disappears into a black hole."

One day earlier The New York Times editorialized: "Mr. Bloomberg deserves his long weekends away from the hubbub of the city, but New Yorkers deserve to know where their mayor is headed, even if they can't watch him at rest." Michael Daly, the Daily News' star columnist, was even more indignant, saying: "Even on a glorious day to match any in Bermuda, we remain a city at war. We are still recovering our dead, and we cannot be assured there will not be another attack... [Bloomberg] is our leader in time of war and the question is not where he went, but why he went anywhere at all."

Frankly, I think there's a class-envy theme at work here; the tabloids would love to have Bloomberg-in-beach-gear photos splashed on their front pages. But this isn't 1940: the Mayor, with a private jet at his disposal, and instant communication with his deputies, doesn't need to be in the city 365 days a year. Daly's correct that the city is in constant peril, but he'd be better off criticizing Bloomberg-and the Bush administration-for the complacency that's developed in the months since Sept. 11.

William Powers, in an essay for the Feb. 22 National Journal, was spot-on in his criticism of the media's short attention span. He recalled that as recently as December an edition of Meet the Press was devoted to the "Age of Seriousness" that had enveloped the nation, including "the notoriously lightweight media." Powers laments: "Have you noticed? The war is still there, but it's playing in the background. And the philosophic searching is gone, supplanted by Enron, the Olympics scandals, Botox, the Oscar race, and a lot of other relatively ephemeral stories, exactly the kind of stuff we used to thrive on before September 11... Since the anthrax incidents, there have been no more successful incidents of domestic terrorism, despite several dire warnings. Fear has diminished, and it has taken with it that urgent collective need to get our arms around our mortality. Enron knocked us out of our ruminations, reminding journalists that while the ultimate questions are nice once in a while, they're a bit rich for our homely trade. We're back into greed, ego, and deception, and that's right where we belong."

Powers' article was published before the confirmation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's savage murder, and that has understandably jolted the media, but it's a one-week story. And then, for the elite dailies, it's back to GOP-bashing (with the exception of Colin Powell), Daschle-boosting, the elixir of campaign finance reform and smearing Judge Charles Pickering.

Pearl's execution ought to reawaken the media to the fact that Al Qaeda and similar fanatic organizations have but one goal: to kill Americans and Israelis. But it won't. Reporters and pundits will continue to harp on the "inhumane" conditions at Guantanamo Bay, Bush's "simplistic" invocation of the "Axis of Evil," America's wanton slaughter of Afghans, while pleading that Yasir Arafat be allowed to give peace a chance.

Imagine that.


JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2002, Russ Smith