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OPINION: Remembering pre-9/11 New York

Passengers going through a TSA inspection at the airport. File photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Walking casually through a courthouse or hospital to get from one street to another. Walking into office buildings just to have a cup of coffee in the employees’ cafeteria, and not being challenged.

This is what it was like in pre-9/11 New York.

Before 9/11, the powers that be were certainly interested in security, but the type of security they practiced pales before the type you see today. You might have to present an ID card at a government building, but you rarely had to go through a metal detector. You could walk right up to City Hall without going through a checkpoint, although getting inside may have been another story.

You had to show a photo ID at airports because of previous experiences with plane hijackers, but having to show an ID on long-distance trains and buses was unheard of. Surveillance cameras had been installed in crime-prone locations, such as little-used passageways in subway stations, but any mention of installing surveillance cameras in public places would have been met with angry protests.

As far as the police were concerned, their main function was understood to be fighting crime, not terrorism. The police officers and U.S. Army soldiers you see in strategic locations such Grand Central or Penn Station, or at subway stations near tunnels and bridges, were simply not there.

Sure, people were concerned about terrorism, which even then was increasing throughout the world – remember the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. But it was assumed that agencies like the FBI were more than capable of dealing with it.

As a child, I remember listening to a news radio program about life behind the Iron Curtain. The moderator described how in the Soviet Union, taking pictures of bridges, tunnels and mass-transit stations was a crime. Who would have thought that such regulations would someday be accepted in the USA?

Above all, the ideas of “wireless wiretapping,” wide-scale surveillance of private citizens’ emails, and blanket surveillance of gatherings of particular ethnic and religious groups would have been derided as the fantasies of conspiracy theorists of the extreme left and the extreme right. The fact that such things have come to pass shows how far we’ve come since 9/11.

I’m not a security expert. Some of these changes certainly were justified, not only because of 9/11 but because of continuing terrorist activity afterward – look at what recently happened at the Boston Marathon. But I saw the changes happen little by little, and some of them were disconcerting.

For example, twice a year I visit a doctor who has an office in a hospital building. Suddenly, starting about five years ago, I had to tell the guard at the desk which doctor I was visiting and what floor he was on. I don’t doubt that there are terrorists about, but I have doubts as to whether an allergist’s office is a target for them.

The purpose of this column is not to debate security policy. Rather, it’s to lament the passage of an easier, less security-obsessed way of life in this city and elsewhere. A writer once called the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s “the end of the easy years.” The same thing might be said about the aftermath of 9/11.

October 30, 2013 - 10:00am


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