Armed guards, survival packs and confusion in a city that fears the worst

War on Terrorism: Security
Click to follow
The Independent US

The little plastic freezer bag with some bits and bobs inside doesn't look much. But the mini-survival kit that Mitchell Levey recently put together in his small hardware shop on East 32nd Street in Manhattan was his way of helping neighbours at the nearby Empire State Building to get ready for the worst.

The worst, of course, is another terror attack similar to the catastrophe of 11 September at the World Trade Centre two miles away. Nobody wants to think that anything similar could happen again. Yet, on Monday, John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, announced – for the second time in three weeks – that he had "credible" information that a second attack might be imminent.

Hahn & Hessen, a law firm, occupies the 36th and 37th floors of the Empire State Building, which, since the twin towers disaster, is once again the tallest and most visible structure in the city. It asked Mr Levey, owner of Whitey's Hardware, to make the tiny kits for all 120 of its employees.

Inside each bag is a face mask, a pair of plastic goggles, a pair of gloves and a tiny, but powerful, pen-torch. "The idea was to help them come through if they had to evacuate down the stairs," Mr Levey explained yesterday, adding: "I think that it was a wonderful gesture by the company that it is looking after its employees." Mr Whitey has a kit hanging in his window too for casual shoppers. He has shifted dozens.

This is just one example of how Americans – whether corporations, police chiefs or parents – are reacting to new circumstances. They are doing just what Washington is asking them to do – preparing for more violence while getting on with business as usual.

So Branis Bruslovich, 24, awoke yesterday aware of Mr Ashcroft's new terror warning but arrived at the Empire State Building on time as usual. She works on the 41st floor.

She is more vigilant than she used to be, she says, but she is carrying on. "I have no choice," she said. "It is very easy to be carried away by all of this, but it is important just to be calm." At the information technology consulting company where she works, only one person decided the Empire State Building was too risky. He resigned a couple of weeks ago.

Mr Ashcroft said it again on Monday: Americans should pay attention, be on high alert but carry on normally. That may seem an impossible request yet most Americans appear to be managing.

Some small fractures are starting to show in public confidence in the government's handling of the crisis. New polls showed both stratospheric support for President George Bush (with approval ratings near 90 per cent) alongside scepticism over his handling of the threat. The government cannot be specific about what people should be afraid of. which doesn't help.

A CBS-New York Times survey released yesterday said 53 per cent of those polled were "very concerned" about future attacks at home, up from 36 per cent a month earlier. Moreover, half said the government had failed to tell the public everything it needed to know about the anthrax attacks.

But Americans, far from panicking, are adjusting to the new world they face at an astonishing speed. Until only a few weeks ago, the United States seemed insulated from the daily sense of threat or disturbance felt in such places as Israel and Northern Ireland. Obviously, that no longer holds.

Commuters at Grand Central Station yesterday barely seemed to notice the National Guard soldiers. They are already part of the landscape. From Friday, by order of George Pataki, the New York Governor, these men will also be armed with automatic rifles.

Fans at Yankee Stadium for last night's third game of baseball's World Series fully understood why they couldn't take in bags. Sporting events have become magnified microcosms of the new order: they are still happening, because normalcy must be preserved.

So President Bush was to pitch the first ball at the start of the game between the Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks. And his Airness, Michael Jordan, was also due to play at Madison Square Garden in his first game since his return to basketball.

Yet security at both venues was due to be overwhelming. Rudolph Giuliani, the Mayor of New York City, deployed 1,000 police officers to roam through the crowd at Yankee Stadium, some in uniform and others in plain clothes. Similarly intense security arrangements are being put in place for this weekend's New York marathon when some 30,000 runners will run a route that will, for example, cross bridges long ago identified as possible targets.

Being willing to adjust is one thing. Knowing what adjustments to make and how far to go with them is another. Police departments across America murmured yesterday that they were already on extra-high alert before Mr Ashcroft spoke. How much more were they expected to do? In fact, what else could they do? Business is also changing habits. New procedures are being introduced in mail rooms. Whereas few office buildings expected tenants to show ID cards when arriving for work two months ago, the practice is commonplace now.

No industry is more transformed – or more on edge – than commercial aviation. No wonder the response was extreme when Rose Harris – on board an American Airlines flight from New York to Dallas on Monday night – found a message taped to her food tray saying the plane was loaded with bombs and would blow up an hour after take-off. The airliner, a Boeing 757, was directed to land at Washington DC, where passengers were evacuated via inflatable chutes. No bombs were found.

The dilemmas of these new times are most intimate within families. Tonight is Hallow-e'en, a date that stands out large on the American calendar. Trick-or-treating is a part of the fabric of tradition-minded Middle America. Children and grown-ups alike dress in scary costumes. Houses in suburbia adopt spooky front-garden displays – coffins and skeletons draped in fake cobweb material. And they seem to have done the same this year, despite the real-life horrors the country has lived through. But the trick-or-treating part has many parents anxious. This is the night taking sweets from strangers is meant to be OK. Anthrax may be changing that rule.

Andrea Orris, who lives in New Jersey, decided that something had to give when she heard about the FBI questioning a man who spent $15,000 (£10,400) on Hallowe'en sweets at shops near her home. Her response was a familiar one, though. Trick-or-treating would happen but a little differently. Last night, she was preparing to throw away the confectionery her nine-year-old daughter received from neighbours (without her seeing) and replace it with goodies she bought in advance.

"I'm not an alarmist type of person," she said. "So I'm trying to keep our life as normal as possible."

Comments