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Securing New York City

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Like many New Yorkers I am having a hard time putting the attempted Times Square bombing out of my mind. Over the past several weeks, New York has been enjoying the type of wonderful spring weather that makes you feel as if the city is literally bursting with life and energy. Winter's gray and cold has been replaced by the green aura of parks in bloom and crowded sidewalk cafes. And then comes this jerk in the smoking black SUV to remind us of the apocalypse in the back of our collective consciousness: The one that probably starts with the phrase "since 9/11."

"If you see something, say something." The T-shirt vendor did, New York's Finest (NYPD) and Bravest (FDNY) responded, and this resilient city bounced back barely skipping a beat. But the images of car bombs in the crowded markets of the Middle East combined with the potential of a fireball exploding in Mid-town are not easily cast aside. The technology of destruction and the technology of prevention and protection compete before our eyes. New York's skyline symbolizes the civilization we have built, and I cannot help looking at it without hoping and praying that somehow it will survive this dangerous era.

The essential, irreducible function of government is security. In medieval times peasants literally ran behind the fortified walls of the castle for safety and protection. In all nations people give up freedoms for the protection of the state, and here in America, this has been a very good deal. We manage to preserve rights, but for the most part are kept both relatively safe and relatively free. Suicidal fanatics are not a new phenomenon, and neither are attacks on innocents. What has changed is the technology of destruction. Weapons of mass destruction allow fanatics to combine their lunacy with vast destructive potential. For the state to provide the protection that we require to be safe, an additional measure of freedom must be sacrificed.

We make this tradeoff every time we go through security at the airport or in a major office building. Full body scans, x-rays, and an ever advancing set of detection devices are becoming common place. Most of us look at such measures and sigh in relief. Of course, in the hands of a totalitarian state, these techniques can easily be turned against average law abiding citizens and could be used to restrict political speech and behavior. And yet, what choice do we have?

The planet is getting more crowded and more urban. We are economically interconnected on an unprecedented scale. Global communication, culture and commerce make us increasingly dependent on each other. Attacks will come. Hopefully the worst will be prevented. Some will end up failing like the other day in Times Square. But inevitably the crazies will succeed. Motivated by their desperate "cause" they will take down buildings like they did here on that perfect crystal blue fall morning in 2001.

While there is no answer to this problem of security in the modern world, I think that New York City has developed a response that is the best we can do:

  • First, avoid self-delusion: The people who are behind acts of terror may have a cause that they believe is just, but they hate us and want to kill us. I am not dismissing the need to address the conditions that give rise to terrorism, but it makes no sense to deny the reality of its impact.
  • Second, resources must be devoted to prevention. About 1,000 New York City cops work on terror investigations. Cameras, detection technology, public awareness, and vigilance are all necessary parts of the equation.
  • Third, resources must be devoted to training and response. Evacuation saved lives on 9/11 and would have saved lives in Times Square.
  • Fourth, resilience and maturity. An endless battle against terror must be maintained while normal life continues. This is the tough part. We get complacent when threats are avoided. Politicians use terror events to whip the public into a frenzy. We need a new approach that maintains vigilance, while avoiding panic and political drum beats.

I think Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly have the right approach and demeanor. I think Rudy Giuliani had it right in September, 2001 but has had it wrong ever since. We need vigilance, but we must avoid obsession. If government cannot keep us safe, all of the delights of a place like New York City will be destroyed. On the other hand, if we adopt the brutal approach practiced by our enemies, we risk being defined by them rather than by our own principles and values. And that would be a mistake.