|February 28, 2006|
New York: Our Port's in a Storm
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
A couple of nights after 9/11, our Manhattan neighborhood still reeling from the tragedy that had taken place nearby, I was talking to two of our 6th Precinct cops, a man and a woman, each Irish-American. The precinct had just lost two of its members at the World Trade Center, Police Officer Jimbo Leahy and Bomb Squad Detective Danny Richardson.
The three of us walked into one of the two delis on our block, each run by Egyptians. As we paid for our purchases, I asked the owner, Mohammed, if everyone was treating him all right. Yes, he replied, and the male policeman said, "Listen, Mohammed, if anybody gives you any kind of crap, you just come over to the precinct and tell us, 'cause, you know, we all love you."
Mohammed thanked him, and then added, with a rueful laugh, in his accented voice, "Well, I AM thinking of changing my name."
With perfect comic timing, the cop said, "You know, Mohammed, I've always thought 'Patrick' had a lovely ring to it..."
According to the 2000 census, there are fewer than 100,000 people of Arab descent living in New York City (total population: 8.2 million), but their presence seems ubiquitous -- running delicatessens and newsstands, working as locksmiths and cobblers, driving taxis. It's not uncommon to see lines of cabs parked in front of local churches -- the houses of worship make space available for Muslims to answer their five time daily call to prayer.
During those days and weeks immediately after the towers fell, there were remarkably few anti-Arab hate incidents reported in the city. In our shared identity as New Yorkers, we recognized what had happened for what it was: a crime against all of us. We chose not to lash out at those among us whose ethnicity was similar to the hijackers'.
So it remains among most New Yorkers today, even those who express their anger that the government would so blithely approve a deal with an Arab-owned company to run shipping terminals in greater New York and several other American cities. The immediate gut reaction may have been one that flirted with xenophobia, but the more considered and typically New York response could best be expressed as, "What the...?" followed by a snort of blunt derision.
"What the...?" because in the last four and half years we've seen so much anti-Arab hysteria stirred up in support of the Global War on Terrorism. It seems bizarre to have the White House suddenly turn and feign befuddled outrage that there should be such hostility toward the sale of Britain's P&O Steam Navigation, operator of the cargo and cruise ship facilities, to Dubai Ports World, owned by the United Arab Emirates.
We're aware of and grateful for the United Arab Emirates' support of the United States since 9/11, and cognizant of the anti-American feelings that could be conjured in the Arab world by putting a kibosh on the deal. But we also remember the UAE's past associations with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. So while the ports contract may turn out to be okay, we're wary. New Yorkers forgive but never forget -- just ask Yankee Alex Rodriguez.
We also wonder, "What the...?" because the failure to tell us in advance about this new arrangement is part and parcel with the government's pattern of not sharing or dissembling about information vital to the safety of New Yorkers.
That includes promised, post-9/11 Federal aid that has failed to materialize and goes back to those first days after the attack. The Environmental Protection Agency told New Yorkers, "It is safe... to go back to work in New York's financial district," although asbestos in some areas was three times higher than safe levels, and private tests indicated large amounts of benzene, mercury and lead in the air.
According to a 2003 EPA Inspector General's report, "When the EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was 'safe' to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement... Furthermore, the White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced... the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones." A class action suit has just been filed.
Finally, New Yorkers ask, "What the...?" because the way in which the deal has been mismanaged feels like one more example of the government's refusal to fully acknowledge and do something about the vulnerability of our ports to terrorism.
Nine million freight containers arrive at our 300 ports of entry every year: 2.5 billion tons of cargo, and that will at least double by 2020, Only six percent of those materials are physically inspected; the Coast Guard, charged with patrolling the harbors, is woefully understaffed and underfunded.
The Maritime Transportation Security Act, passed after 9/11, called for $5.4 billion over ten years to improve port security. According to the American Association of Port Authorities, "Federal money allocated in the first five rounds of the program -- about $708 million -- accounted for only about one-fifth of what seaports identified as needs."
That DP World and the government have agreed to a 45 day investigation of the national security ramifications of the ports transaction is a good thing. So are DP's assurances that a separate subsidiary will handle its North American operations and a United States citizen will be in charge of security -- at least until the security review is complete.
But the inquiry must be far more open to congressional and public scrutiny than the secrecy with which the original deal was approved. That the same agencies that already signed off on it so willingly will be conducting the review is less than encouraging.
Last week, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference to announce that a case of anthrax had been discovered in the city. It was accidental, contracted from animal skins and not an act of bio-terrorism, unlike the still-unsolved flurry of attacks shortly after 9/11.
The mayor stood there, gave straight answers for more than half an hour, and calmly reassured the public that every precaution was being taken. There seemed nothing to hide.
The contrast with the evasive and imperious behavior of the White House throughout the Dubai flap was striking. The mayor was blunt, direct and honest. He told it like it was. He told it like a post 9/11 New Yorker.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
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