America: land of opportunity for terrorists

July 28, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

THE SECURITY arrangements that have been put in place here and elsewhere since the tragedy of Sept. 11 are no laughing matter, but they stir the memory of an old story.

It is about the man being interviewed for the first time by his psychiatrist. While they are talking, the psychiatrist notices that the man keeps snapping his fingers for no apparent reason.

"Why do you keep snapping your fingers like that?" the psychiatrist asks.

"Oh, that's to keep the elephants away," the patient replies.

"But there aren't any elephants around here for thousands of miles," says the psychiatrist.

"See how effective it is," says the patient.

In Baltimore, there have been many changes for the sake of security. Fortunately, the elephants have not been around to test them.

At Penn Station, for example, a driver parking a car is asked for a photo identification before being allowed to enter the underground garage. But the car is not examined for possible explosives. If a suicide bomber were to venture down there in a vehicle packed with explosives what would he care if everyone knew who he was?

The new ramp leaving from the train station to the Jones Falls Expressway is blockaded, but my experience with car and truck bombers is that they don't use exits. They use entrances.

Sinna Nasseri, an intern at this newspaper, visited Penn Station and reported that while there seems to be a lot of security, anyone can walk unchecked into the station with luggage big enough to hold a very powerful bomb.

He also visited the police headquarters building (very secure); the Legg Mason Building (good security inside, not so good from the outside); the World Trade Center (tight security inside and out); and the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor (practically anyone could walk in with a bomb).

This is unsettling, because, of the four downtown places, the aquarium is where the kind of people terrorists target are most likely to be found: women and children, families out to have some fun. Ask the Israelis, whose people have been hit by terrorists in buses, restaurants, discos and hotels.

I've been to quite a few restaurants and hotels around here since Sept. 11, and the security is practically nonexistent. Anyone can walk into or drive to the front of, or under, any hotel in town without going through the slightest security. Same goes for the city's parking garages. Restaurants have no security.

This month, hotels in Baltimore were full of conventioneers, many of them law enforcement types, who had brought their wives and families to see the marvels of Charm City. I walked into one of the hotels during that time and noticed no security precautions.

When I was in Egypt in February, I found that each hotel I visited had security guards at the entrance checking identifications and baggage.

And speaking of that trip to Egypt, one of the security lapses that stunned me at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was at the duty-free liquor store. Passengers go through elaborate security checks of their bags and themselves before entering the restricted departure area where the stores are located. I bought a couple of bottles and carried them onto the aircraft.

These bottles were made of glass. Had it not occurred to the authorities that a broken bottle could be more lethal than a lot of the items passengers are not allowed to carry with them onto the aircraft? Had they never seen the scene in From Here to Eternity in which Burt Lancaster goes after Ernest Borgnine with a broken bottle?

Someone remarked to me the other day, when I was mouthing off about all this, that I should be happy to be living in a city that is probably too insignificant to be worthy of targeting by terrorists. Osama bin Laden and his gang might have never even heard of Baltimore. But that's not the point.

The point is that in many respects the precautions taken here -- or the lack of them -- are not much different from most other cities, except possibly Washington and New York, where I have not been to a hotel or a restaurant since Sept. 11.

In a very frightening way, America is the land of opportunity for any terrorist because there are so many places where deadly havoc could be wrought again, even on a scale of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the face of what happened that day, billions of dollars are being poured into security precautions and the security and intelligence bureaucracies. Two things are not happening, though.

One is that wholesale security precautions -- the sort that would require extraordinary social change and behavior -- have not been fully grasped or undertaken by Americans. That might be a good thing in the sense that the social upheaval would be what the terrorists want. But it's scary.

The other, probably more important, is that the so-called war to end terrorism has not taken on important sources of the problem.

These include the relationship of mutual dependency between the United States -- as well as the rest of the industrialized world -- and the oil-producing Arab states, all of which are run by regimes and families that are so despotic that even their own people hate them, and us for being there to protect them. And they include the political inability to act aggressively in compelling a fair settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those are real elephants, and all the finger-snapping in the world won't stop them from smothering us.

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