Home-brewed terror

September 24, 2004

A REVIEW OF the ingredients makes clear the recipe was for trouble.

Ten thousand New York City cops, packed into the narrow streets of Midtown Manhattan and pumped up to protect President Bush and Republican delegates.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters, determined to demonstrate their opposition to - and even hatred for - Mr. Bush during his four-day nominating convention.

Vague but ominous warnings from federal officials that a terrorist attack during the period was a near certainty.

Stir in mass confusion and the bullying tactics of federal law enforcement officials, and it's no wonder hundreds of innocent people were swept up in mass arrests and treated like the enemy combatants held at Guantanamo.

For whatever reason, the terrorists did not appear, so the enormous police presence turned its attention to the protesters, and to passers-by who happened to be in close proximity.

Perhaps it's too easy to criticize security that may have performed the essential task of thwarting a terrorist attack. Surely, though, the overwhelming force put on the streets of New York for the GOP convention last month was far too clumsily applied.

Local prosecutors prepared in advance to be able to handle 1,000 arrests per day, and the police delivered almost that many - about 1,800 during the convention period, of which at least one-third were estimated to be innocents caught up in broad police sweeps.

Those taken into custody in these mass arrests were cast into temporary cells and held for a day or longer without access to lawyers or even adequate toilet facilities.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who set some of the no-holds-barred tone for dealing with disruptions to the convention, complained that protesters expected prisons to look like "Club Med."

Protesters are annoying - that's usually the point. And often they stage demonstrations with the specific intent of getting arrested.

But New York City's finest know how to deal with that. What turned the climate so combustible was the frenzy of fear whipped up by federal homeland security folks.

Yet another lesson that sometimes the terrors we face are those we turn on ourselves.

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