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A city bracing for the what-ifs

August 02, 2004|GERALDINE BAUM

And now, on to New York.

Last week, a bomb scare emptied subways for 200 blocks, and if what happened afterward on the M5 bus is any indication, New Yorkers are plenty edgy that the upcoming Republican National Convention is painting a wounded city -- already a terrorist target -- an even brighter red.

It's not that the locals can't handle 50,000 Republicans flooding this Democratic city. Certainly, New Yorkers welcome outsiders, and certainly, they are inured to the prospect of more mayhem. In a city where there are 600 demonstrations a year, could anything top the gridlock that occurs on a Sunday in June when the Israeli Day Parade, angry but orderly Palestinian protesters and a five-borough bike marathon all converge in Midtown?

"We're accustomed to keeping a lot of balls in the air at the same time," said Deputy Police Commissioner Paul J. Browne, describing the potential for chaos in a week that the GOP, the Yankees, the Mets and the U.S. Open will all be in town.

But in post-Sept. 11 New York, there are balls in the air, and then there are trigger events that raise a collective anxiety that only New Yorkers who were here three years ago can relate to. Bomb scares in the subway can do it. A car fire in the Lincoln Tunnel has done it -- several times, in fact. And Sunday brought word from Washington that the Citicorp building and the New York Stock Exchange are among sites the government believes have been targeted for possible terrorist attacks.

Even a pretty blue sky resonates the wrong way with some people because it recalls a sky so blue that day in September.

Sometimes, it's as if we are all suffering from a bad case of acid reflux, where the tiniest event can bring up the most whelming worries. It's one thing to live in fear of what could happen; it's another to live in fear of what did happen. So even before Sunday's news, with the Democrats in Boston last week reminding New Yorkers of the political show coming their way, and with law enforcement leaking more news about terrorist chatter indicating that the GOP convention is a target, the fear factor here had risen dramatically.

After Blaine Elise, a cookbook editor, had struggled onto that crowded M5 bus and started yammering about how "it was going to be just like this when the Republicans get here," several of her fellow travelers clearly experienced an acidic burn in their chests. You could tell by their grimaces.

"I have to be here; there's no escaping to the Hamptons or the Jersey shore for this girl," said Elise, 60. "I have too many deadlines. But I can't go through this again -- delays, bomb threats, nonsense, bag checks, the whole riot gear thing again in Midtown."

A youngish woman, in a silvery skirt and black flip-flops, who said she was a private banker, chimed in eagerly: "Yeah, I know, I have to work too, but there's no way I'm going into the subways. I'm going to bike to Midtown. Have you been reading what they're planning?"

New York City police have been talking openly about their twin mission of allowing law-abiding protesters -- the city is expecting more than 250,000 -- to have their civic say and still keeping the city safe. At the same time they're negotiating the minutiae -- about where the protest groups can and can't be -- the police, the Secret Service, the FBI and a whole alphabet of agencies are planning for the worst.

Officials expect they'll have to contend with a particularly twisted strategy by "anarchists" -- they always call them that to differentiate them from garden-variety activists -- who are bent on foiling security measures, for example, by throwing pellets at bomb-sniffing dogs, confusing them about explosives that aren't there. The NYPD is also worried about a plot by "anarchists" to overwhelm city emergency rooms by faking illness; a team of physicians has been hired to help Fire Department medics make evaluations on the scene.

"This is a city where people freak out and call 911 if they see a plane flying too low over Midtown," said Browne. "We can't afford to have any real violence."

Mark Fisher, an electrician who lives in the Bronx with his nurse wife and three teenage sons, also hopped that M5 after the 1,2, 3, and 9 subway lines were delayed because of a "suspicious package." He was more sympathetic of the tough talk by police about heightened security during the convention than he would have been in "the old days," he said.

"I'm a real '60s kinda guy, but it's one thing to try pull off this disruption-for-disruption's sake stuff in Seattle or Boston, but it's a whole other ball of wax in New York," said Fisher, who helped in the recovery in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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