Bostonians struggle with unwelcome role in tragedy

Logan being starting point only worsens `malaise'

Terrorism Strikes America

Boston

September 14, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON - They looked over their shoulders when the occasional ambulance siren wailed in the distance. Bought colorful flowers from street vendors to chase away the blahs. Sat at their desks staring at computer screens and doing what one businessman called "make-do" work.

And on park benches they read books titled - coincidentally - Paradise Lost and Global Transformations.

Spared the carnage of New York and Washington, downtown Boston looked normal yesterday, at least outwardly. But nobody, from the normally upbeat mayor to the casual tourist to the office worker on lunch break, tried to pretend that was really the case.

"It's like a malaise has set in, a concern, a helplessness," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said as his SUV rolled through the city on an incongruously glorious late summer afternoon. "People don't know how to get on with things."

Boston's unwelcome role in the tragedy only seemed to darken the city's mood. The two hijacked flights that brought down the World Trade Center towers Tuesday originated at Logan International Airport, which meant those involved had breathed the same air as Bostonians and possibly lived among them for a time.

"People look at their neighbors a little bit differently now," said Paul Johnson, a 41-year-old construction worker.

A Northeastern University terrorism expert asserted yesterday that the Boston area is home to several Islamic terrorist "cells," small groups of people who blend into a community. Criminal justice professor Edith E. Flynn noted that the FBI previously linked two taxi drivers who left Boston in the late 1990s to Saudi terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. She said she had no specific evidence, though, that such cells played a role in Tuesday's attack.

Even as Flynn and others stressed the need to avoid judging people by their ethnicity or nationality, representatives of the Islamic Society of Boston spoke on local radio stations about their fears that Muslims would be singled out for bad treatment. A throng of society members joined a vigil last night in City Hall Plaza to express their grief.

Menino warned against stereotyping and tried to put the best spin on the situation. That is why, despite canceling numerous events and two fund raisers, he visited the Springhouse assisted living facility yesterday to mark Assisted Living Week.

"Hiya!" he said as he worked the room, then held forth on issues facing senior citizens. Almost as an afterthought he brought up the attacks with his audience: "I'm trying to get people to get back to normal."

Around Boston, there were small reminders of Tuesday's events, which saw the city's office towers and government buildings emptied as a precaution. Traffic was still light and crowds at tourist spots small, and police officers and barricades stood where neither usually do.

"Who cares about business when there are people buried in the rubble?" said Johnny Bistany, who owns a stand in Quincy Market that sells falafel and other Middle Eastern lunch fare.

Outside the market, Gina Leahy and John Tamakloe watched as their pigtailed 3-year-old, Alexis, fed pigeons. Leahy and Tamakloe had driven 40 minutes from their home in Worcester to see the sights and to take care of some business at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We got a little bit nervous," Leahy said. But "nothing bad's going on." She had looked in Worcester for an American flag to fly from her car but, finding stores sold out, instead wore a sign of her patriotism: a T-shirt with a large red-white-and-blue kiss on the front.

But there was little joy evident. At Exotic Flowers near City Hall, general manager Rick Canale took numerous flower orders from people trying to cheer themselves or a loved one. And while workers returned to office towers for a second day, they were hardly models of productivity.

"If you took the 10-hour days we're working, you could cram it into a much tighter basket," real estate executive Kevin C. Phelan said. Phelan said many people filled their day by just passing time. Because of the links between financial communities in Boston and New York, he said, workers nervously scanned the Web hoping to learn the fates of friends and associates.

Menino said he, like many people, had at least a tangential link to those who perished. Among the victims on the doomed flights from Boston were a youth hockey teammate of Menino's son and the wife of a friend of the mayor.

Menino disputed accounts of terrorists living in his city.

"I'm pretty close to the Police Department, and I haven't been told about these terrorist cells," he said.

But Flynn, the Northeastern terrorism expert, said the city has long been home to Islamic terrorist cells.

"Sheer logic dictates supportive groups or cells were called upon in Boston," she said.

Flynn pointed to the case of two former Boston cabdrivers whom the FBI identified this year as agents of bin Laden, according to The Boston Globe.

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