9/11 Taking Stock

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Eye from Albany
November 2005

9/11 Taking Stock
by Paul M. Bray

Time flies and four years have passed since 9/11 and the act of terrorism that changed life as we knew it in New York State. But do we really fully know what these changes are and mean? Do we really know how our ship of state and nation is being steered and where it is headed? I don’t and wish we were taking stock.

The gloom that hung over New York City after 9/11 lifted a couple of years ago but the concrete barriers to buildings like the State Capital in Albany remain as do the airport like security for many public buildings. These are the daily reminders of looming terrorism even if it is hard to believe they make us safer than if they didn’t exist at all.

The real fiscal impact is hard to gauge. While the current state coffers are bulging with more than a billion dollar of surplus, the report of the GAO says that New York City has lost $400 million annually in personal income tax revenues in 2004 and 2005 and the “forgone tax revenue as a result of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center are, ‘$2.5 billion to $2.9 billion for New York City and about $2.9 billion for New York State'”. So, are we financially up or down since 9/11?

New York City flight since 9/11 also is hard to gauge. Go up and down the Hudson Valley and you see housing prices soaring. This has been attributed, at least in part, to New York City dwellers escaping or at least getting a redoubt in case of another terrorist attack. More than 500,000 acres of the State’s farmland has changed hands and is no longer used for agricultural purposes over the last 5 years. Is this also a 9/11 effect? Yet, apartment, condo and home prices in New York City continue to skyrocket, so is there really flight from the City or growing flight to the City?

On a day-by-day basis our lives essentially go on as before 9/11. We continue to move about in automobiles, buses, subways, trains and airplanes as before 9/11, but with some additional inconvenience for security in the case of airports. We shop at malls, big box stores and supermarkets and go to large sporting events. In doing so we remain exposed to suicide bombers. Many things haven’t changed.

Even the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraqi go on with little visible affect on our daily lives. More than 2000 soldiers have died and many, many more have been injured. Many billions of dollars are being spent on wars that are supposed to make us safer, but may be feeding the fires of terrorism for years to come if not also sowing the seeds of economic woes ahead. In this respect, we are not safer.

Beneath the surface is a war on terrorism at home that may be undermining our civil liberties. Once and a while it bubbles to the surface as in news reports of the FBI’s National Security Letter that requires libraries, phone companies, financial institutions and even casinos to give the FBI access to all records “relevant” to someone subject to a terrorism investigation. That is even scarier when it was reported that 10s of thousands or possibly 100s of thousands of these letters have gone out. Does the FBI have reasonable grounds for suspicion on these cases or are they just fishing?

It is fair to ask if eroding civil liberties are making us safer. The Justice Department refuses to disclose information on how the USA Patriot Act has been used, citing national security concerns. Government at all levels seems to make a knee jerk reaction against disclosing records. For example, Homeland Security resists disclosing evacuation routes on security grounds. That was a big help to the evacuees in cases like hurricane Katrina. It isn’t a help to anyone when counter-terrorism trumps public safety.

I raise these matters now as we prepare for the election for governor in 2006. What better time to put counter-terrorism and public safety in focus. Attorney General and Democratic candidate Elliot Spitzer isn’t wasting time in staking out his positions. In a speech to the Association of Fire Districts of New York, Spitzer took the low road and the high road when it comes to protecting us from terrorism. His call for capital punishment for terrorists, something the Feds already have, is not going to do anything I can see to make us safer. Besides George Pataki used that one in his first election. It got a death penalty law but, thankfully, without any executions or the court’s approval.

More positive is Spitzer’s pledge to “err on the side of disclosure”. It will make the public safer especially if information about security and disaster planning is shared with first responders and through them to the general public.

We have had enough time to move beyond the trauma of 9/11 and into the light of day with systematic analysis to seek the ways and means for our open society to continue to preserve its freedoms while maximizing public safety. Let the campaign for governor be free of fear mongering and full of thoughtful discourse on the challenges we face.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.