Living with terror

August 31, 2004

AS THE REPUBLICAN convention opened yesterday morning, dozens of tow trucks lined access roads around Central Park, 20 blocks away, with their engines idling. Big ones, small ones, lots of hooks and cranes. They needed to be ready at a moment's notice, police said, in case they were suddenly summoned to service.

Call this an armored division in the war on terror, part of the massive police presence detailed to protect convention delegates from enemy attack but so far mostly focused on preventing mischief caused by convention protesters.

It wasn't enough that six to 10 square blocks around Madison Square Garden were closed off as a frozen zone, or that travel to Penn Station below was so restricted that police outnumbered passengers at the nation's busiest rail center, or that 10,000 of New York's finest were clustered all over the rest of midtown Manhattan.

Security was so tight at this symbolic center of President Bush's drive to win re-election based on his credentials as an anti-terror warrior that neither the cost of wasted fuel nor the collateral damage to the environment outweighed the need for tow truck drivers to be able to take off without taking a moment to start their engines.

Is this what it takes to be safe in a terrorism target-rich environment? If so, Mr. Bush's observation yesterday that the war on terrorism cannot ever be really won - in the sense of an armistice signed and handshakes all around - highlights the need for a national debate on how to cope with this burden for the foreseeable future.

Of course, the GOP convention, held blocks from Ground Zero amid threats of new assaults by al-Qaida and disruptions by nearly a half-million Bush-hating protesters, presents a unique challenge to the homeland security folks.

But even a protective regime only a small fraction of this size would be unsustainable politically and economically over the long term. Yet while the Republican platform touts Mr. Bush's leadership and his "steadfast resolve" in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, it fails to take on the issue of homeland security in any practical way - tow trucks aside.

Democratic challenger John Kerry argues that Mr. Bush is using fear as a campaign tactic because voters tell pollsters they are reluctant to change presidents in the middle of a war. The war on terror, though, is like the war on influenza, the war on drugs or the war on poverty. There are steps we can take to prevent or at least minimize the damage, but we will have to learn to live with the threat.

There ought to be a place in this critical campaign to debate the best way to do that.

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