Where next? Jittery US prepares for fresh attacks

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The Independent US

As the first anniversary of 11 September approaches, Americans are wrestling with different emotions. No one argues that the day should go unmarked. But many wish it were already past. They feel overloaded by media images of that awful day. And now, some will feel nervous too.

So shattered were the nerves of this country after the Pentagon was torn open and New York'stwin towers turned to dust, anxiety that some fresh attack could occur is never far away – and many, including the federal government, believe that 11 September is the day that terrorists may want to strike again.

The news from Sweden, where a man of Tunisian origin was arrested on Thursday with a pistol in his luggage, is helping to stoke the unease.

While the investigation into the Ryanair passenger continues, one fact is certain to unsettle ordinary citizens in this country. Officials have discovered that he took pilot training at a flying school in the United States of the type that gave the September 11 terrorists the skills to take control of four passenger jets and turn them into deadly missiles with human passengers as their warheads.

No wonder officials expect many ordinary Americans to stay at home on Wednesday week. Some schools in Manhattan will be closed. Commuters will be loath to board crowded trains and buses. Travellers will surely stay away from aeroplanes.

One US carrier, Spirit Airlines, has already declared that all tickets on its routes that day will be free. It is partly a gesture to the heroes of last September, partly recognition that without the give-away, the seats on their planes would remain largely empty. Other airlines are slashing their schedules.

In a surprising blunder, the Pentagon fuelled the public disquiet last week by announcing plans to ban international airlines from flying in and out of the New York City and Washington DC areas on the anniversary, as well as in airspace above Pennsylvania, where a fourth airliner crashed en route to an as yet unknown target.

The White House scotched the idea when foreign airlines arose as one in a chorus of irritation: the government feared such a ban would shake America's confidence all over again. But the damage was done.

The memories of 9/11 prompt a feeling that that day, followed as it was by recession, financial scandals and stock market collapse, ushered in a dark period in modern US history. Not even the unexpected resolution on Friday of the baseball dispute has done much to raise national spirits.

The initial tide of patriotism unleashed by the attacks, culminating in the glorious 2001 World Series, has ebbed. The forest of US flags that sprouted from homes, gardens, cars and office buildings has largely withered.

Many people secretly plead for restraint in marking the anniversary, arguing that the scenes are etched on everyone's minds, and that endless repeats of them will amount to a pornography of horror. But covert or overt, American commercialism will out.

Alarmism, meanwhile, has been fuelled by the scaremongering of an administration terrified that it might ever be accused of not being alert to the perils facing the country. Hence the stream of warnings of attacks against nuclear power stations banks, hospital buildings – all of which have proved groundless.

Last week, Newark's airport was renamed Liberty International – Flight UA93 took off from Newark on 11 September before being hijacked over Ohio and aimed at Washington. The heroism of its passengers caused it to crash in rural Pennsylvania, preventing a direct hit on the White House or the Capitol.

Meanwhile the arrests of six people in Detroit and rural Oregon for suspected links with al-Qa'ida has only confirmed the belief that terrorist cells still exist within the US, and a leaked United Nations report asserts that al-Qa'ida still has more than enough financial resources to carry out its deadly work.

Given the precautions being taken here, attacks against US targets, staged to coincide with the anniversary, are more likely abroad.