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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from New York

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, July 12, 2002
From the Field
Cernetig Miro


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Pictures from New York

The empty space where the World Trade Center once stood is surrounded by buildings in Manhattan. The building in foreground is part of the World Financial Center.
Photo: Ed Bailey/AP

Two taxis pass the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York's Times Square.
Photo: Richard Drew/AP

Forget the FBI, the CIA, the code-crackers at the National Security Agency or even the National Guard. Here in New York, the last line of homeland defense is now my doorman.

The first clue of this new wrinkle to the War On Terror came a month ago. After a night on the town, I walked in the lobby of my Manhattan apartment, which happens to be about two blocks from ground zero. A pile of letters sat on the desk of the doorman, a pleasant man in a rumpled uniform who roused himself from a nap when he heard the swish of the revolving door as I walked in.

"Evening, sir," he said, pointing to the letters. "You all got mail from the FBI. Better read that".

And so I did.

"Dear Resident,
As you may have seen or read in the news in recent days, the FBI has informed residential building owners and managers that a general, non-specific threat of terrorist activities may exist for apartment buildings. This advisory has not been linked to any time, place, property type or terrorist organization. . . ."
"The FBI is encouraging the apartment industry as a whole to take reasonable, common sense measures in response to any suspicious activities."

A few weeks later, Local 32B-J/SEIU, the Building Service Union of New York, told New York magazine what one of those common sense measures would be. Henceforth, the city's army of doormen will soon be the last line of defence between Manhattan apartment dwellers and Al Qaeda. The union has received $1-million (U.S.) from building owners to train doormen in counter-terrorism. Everything from interrogating the pizza guy to keeping an eye open for terrorists who might be building a bomb in their apartment, will be added to the responsibility of calling taxis and keeping out the riffraff.

"Doorman responsibilities will become security, not hailing a cab," Mary Ann Rothman, the head of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, told the magazine. She raises the possibility of ID cards for residents. Others have suggested that high-end buildings might want to get metal detectors and bomb-sniffing equipment in the lobby.

It's become routine for people to say that life in New York is slowly returning to normal 10 months after the World Trade Center towers were struck down by two hi-jacked airliners. Living here, though, one encounters daily reminders that the mood of the city has been altered for a long time to come _ not because of the Sept. 11th tragedy, but because everyone now lives with the fear that we're still be in the terrorist crosshairs and that neither the doormen nor the government knows quite what to do about it.

Each day, when I walk out of my building, trekking along the Hudson River banks near the edge of ground zero, the old New York is still everywhere. The Statue of Liberty stands in the middle of the harbour's summer haze. The tour boats chug out to Ellis Island. My neighbours, from millionaire stockbrokers to Puerto Rican nannies, are stretched out under the trees, often watching their kids attack ices, the Big Apple's summer confection that is served in paper cups that always seem to drip.

But the reverie never lasts too long.

Somewhere upriver, I will hear the sound of military helicopters thumping the air. Soon they appear, low to the water as they circle Manhattan on yet another inspection tour, a warning to terrorists that America is ready for another attack. Sometimes, in what the military believes reassures the populace, they hover near the Statue of Liberty for ten minutes or more. Passersby usually stop what they're doing, lean on the railing by the river and stare, often contemplating what was once unthinkable.

"I wonder if they have radiation detectors?" a man mused on a recent afternoon.

"Hope so," answered another.

Fifty meters away, delivery trucks are arriving at the World Financial Center, the business complex that is across the street from ground zero. Security men now walk around the trucks with mirrors on the end of metal rods, to check underneath to see if there might be bombs that could be secreted into the loading docks inside the skyscrapers. In that same building, I had to go through metal detectors, get frisked and present photo ID to go to the coffee shop.

None of it makes you feel very safe, however.

The new vigilance makes me only wonder at everything that isn't being done. The subways remain largely unprotected; most trucks aren't inspected, nor are the natural gas barges that float up and down the Hudson River. My doorman certainly can't help with any of that.

Perhaps the most telling moment, one that captures the new, nervous New York happens late at night. The double-paned windows of my apartment will suddenly rattle, waking me up. It's a squadron of fighter jets, flying low over the city. New York is still the city that never sleeps. But now, it's for entirely different reasons.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.