Issue of the Week

Terrorism and Anti-Terrorism

12 September 01

by Gail Robinson

The Fight Against Terrorism

In the past years, the city and federal government have taken many steps to fight terrorism. No one will ever know how many attacks and deaths these efforts have prevented. But the crashes into the World Trade Center make it clear how difficult it is to guard against every conceivable threat.

In 1996, partly to fight terrorism, Mayor Rudy Giuliani created the Office of Emergency Management, a descendent of the city's Office of Civil Defense and the Police Department's Office of Emergency Management. The agency, which includes personnel from the Police and Fire Departments, Emergency Medical Service, and other city agencies, was intended to deal with catastrophes such as a chemical or biological attack or a "mass fatality situation." However, until the attack on the World Trade Center, many of the emergencies it had confronted were far less dire, such as the threat of the Y2K computer virus, an infestation of longhorn beetles, and an influx of rodents. The day of the attack, Emergency Management seemed focused on the dangers of hurricanes and power outtages." It's Hurricane Season in NYC," its website announced.

In a related move, in 1999, Giuliani opened a $15 million emergency management center at 7 World Trade Center. The city boasted that the command center's walls could withstand 200 miles per hour winds, and the ventilation system was designed to blow out chemicals or germs. Although it was on the 23rd floor, critics assailed the center as "Rudy's bunker." Michael Daly of the Daily News likened it to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's shelter. "Of course, the mayor's inner circle will not have the cozy security of the traditional underground setting. They will be in the first-ever aerie-style bunker, a 46,000-square-foot expanse on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center."

That location, of course, turned out to be the center's undoing, when it, along with the rest of 7 World Trade Center, crumbled into oblivion on September 11.

In November, if things still proceed as planned, voters will decide whether to make the Office of Emergency Management a permanent city agency. The proposal is one of five fairly modest City Charter reforms that will be on the ballot on Election Day. The mayor's Charter Revision Commission decided not to place before voters more controversial proposals, such as creating nonpartisan city elections and giving the Fire Department control over Buildings Department inspections.

In language that seems painfully obvious now, the Charter Revision Commission warns that New York is not immune from terrorist threats. So, it says, "The Office of Emergency Management should be codified in the Charter as an independent agency, the Emergency Management Department, to ensure the city's future success in using a comprehensive approach to emergency management." If approved, the measure would bar future mayors beyond from changing or eliminating the Emergency Management Office without the City Council's approval or another referendum.

Most critics of the charter reform proposals have focused not on their substance but on how Giuliani has used the charter reform process. (His 1999 revisions were resoundingly rejected by voters.) Some good government groups object to the comparatively short time the commission, appointed in June, had to act and to the brief period of time that voters will have to consider the proposals. "The mayor has one last chance to degrade the process of amending the city's constitution," Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group said in June, "and he's taking it."

A DIFFERENT DANGER

During the past several years, the city also focused on biological and chemical threats, taking particular notice of a 1995 nerve agent attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and injured thousands. In 1998, the New York Times reported that the city was using much of the $17 million it had received from the federal government for anti-terrorism efforts to deal with so-called unconventional threats such as germ warfare. It was buying germ detectors, working out deals with regional hospitals for emergency care, arranging with drug companies to produce medicines quickly in an emergency and taking steps to stockpile medications.

The city's concern echoed those of the federal government. In May, President Bush gave a speech expressing concern about chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism. Noting that many countries either have or are seeking such weapons, the president said, "Most troubling of all, the list of these countries includes some of the world's least responsible states, states for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life. Some non-state terrorist groups have also demonstrated an interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction." He called for Vice President Richard Cheney to form a task force to examine ways to prepare the nation for terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. And the Defense Department selected New York's Office of Emergency Management as a key participant in an exercise aimed at preparing for any bioterrorist attacks.

In January, John Jay College and Region II of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which includes New York, will sponsor a forum on urban hazards, including terrorism, catastrophic events and mitigation. Tragically, the conference now seems certain to be very well attended.

THE CITY'S BRUSHES WITH TERRORISM

During the 1970s and 1980s the Armed Forces for Puerto Rican National Liberation, known by its Spanish acronym FALN , carried out several attacks. On January 24, 1975, the group bombed Fraunces Tavern in the financial district, the site of George Washington's farewell to his troops. The attack on the lunch-hour crowd killed four and wounded 60.

The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center killed six people.

A possibly deadly attack was averted in 1997 when two Palestinian men were arrested for planning to bomb the New York City subway system. A third member of the group alerted law enforcement to the plot which apparently included a plan to blow up the Atlantic Avenue station in Brooklyn, a major hub for the subways and Long Island Railroad.

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