BOMBSPOTTING: In the wake of the destruction of TWA Flight 800 and the bombing at the Olympic Park in Atlanta, a new pastime has arisen in New York: bombspotting. Last week hundreds of would-be lawyers found that they couldn't catch the train to Albany to take the bar exam because, as they later learned, a suspicious package had been found on a bus on Fifth Avenue, smack in front of the New York Public Library's be-lioned stone steps. Thousands of gaping onlookers jostled their way as close as possible to the Forbidden Zone, train and bus stations shut down, and mid-town traffic ground to a halt for a good hour or two, all on account of what the news stations would only refer to, cagily, as "police activity". This, of course, led irascible New Yorkers to speculate that "police inactivity" was the more normal state of affairs. Happily, the faux-bomb turned out to be a mislaid package; but one wonders what could have resulted in midtown - given the failure of the authorities to reveal the nature of the situation for fear of alarming the public - had alarming the public turned out to have been, in hindsight, a necessary thing.

London has long known the threat of domestic terrorism. Signs warning of the hazard of unattended packages are commonplace, and when a bomb threat is called in, a whole system quickly falls into place whereby Tube stations are alerted and the public is warned. New York has no such system. We have long suspected that groups (including those of the home-grown variety) might wish to attack us, but we have slept soundly none the less, thanks to a certain shiny confidence that Humphrey Bogart expressed best when he told Major Strasser in 'Casablanca': "There are certain sections of New York that I wouldn't advise you to invade." In other words we assumed they wouldn't dare. The World Trade Center bombing had an anomalous, lightning- can't-strike-twice feel to it, but lately the New Yorker's habitual bravado has been buffeted. Foreign journalists muscle their way into our airports with joke bombs, giggling at our woeful lack of preparedness on the evening news, whilst US congressmen reveal on chat shows that we've got 30 international terrorists per US state, apparently some sort of quota. Yes, at last, the notion seems to be weaseling its way into the metropolitan subconscious: someday we all may have something in this town to fear ... besides other New Yorkers.

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