“Vague Threat Prompts Steps by the Police,” says the small headline in the New York Times‘ NY/Region section. The mayor’s office issues a statement saying that the city’s threat level has not changed. Meanwhile, the New York Post, issues its own “terror alert” with the headline, “NYPD ON THE ALERT FOR QAEDA ‘BOMB’,” and reports that “officers were mobilized and checkpoints set up throughout the city – at the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and various locations in lower Manhattan, including the Financial District – to conduct searches and monitor suspicious activity.”
Did something happen or did nothing happen? The man who triggered the alert stated philosophically (or hysterically), “There is always something to be afraid of, because the threat is an ongoing threat.”
Whatever else might have happened (or not happened) yesterday, it’s hard not to wonder whether this was a practice run; an exercise to answer this question: If a notorious Israeli propagandist shouts BOO! can he make New York jump? The Giuliani campaign is perhaps already reflecting on the results.
Here’s how Israel’s Ynet reports what happened:
Be it true or false, imaginary or realistic, DEBKAfile’s Giora Shamis can rest easy on Saturday, after having spun New York police into a frenzy following a Debka report that al-Qaeda might be plotting to detonate a dirty bomb in the city.
Moments before updating his site with new information obtained from world-wide sources, Shamis talked with Ynet and refused to take full credit for the incident.
“The New York Police didn’t have to take my information seriously,” he said. “They had other information, additional to ours.”
A Department of Homeland Security spokesman said, “There’s no information that leads us to believe that there’s an imminent threat.” So, contrary to the DEBKAfile editor’s assertion that NYPD had “other information,” it does not sound as if this was the case.
What can we infer from this incident?
If the NYPD, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, is willing to deploy hundreds of police in response to nothing more than a dubious piece of “intelligence” from a highly politically-motivated Israeli web site, it appears that U.S. homeland counter-terrorism operations are extremely easy to manipulate.
Terrorist organizations will take note of this fact and be able to exploit it in a number of ways. They will understand that:
1. Provoking false alarms is economically draining.
2. The more easily security measures can be triggered, the less confidence the public will have that government agencies actually have access to reliable intelligence.
3. The more often false alarms happen, the more complacent the public will become.
4. The more often security services are unnecessarily deployed, the less attentive they will become.
5. Provided with a heightened level of complacency among security services and the public, it will become easier to launch a terrorist attack.
The bottom line is that fear-mongering makes America more — not less — vulnerable to terrorism.
To be strong on terrorism means refusing to be governed by fear. Even though there is always something to be afraid of, it does not serve our interests to live in perpetual fear. Necessary vigilance needs to be coupled with a sense of proportion and a measure of skepticism. In the long run, the fear of terrorism can pose a greater threat than terrorism itself. What was true before 9/11 remains true today: The average American is vastly more at risk of being killed by an automobile than by a terrorist. In the last six years approximately 250,000 Americans have been killed in traffic accidents. There are no reports that any of the vehicles involved were being driven by members of al Qaeda.