The red, white and blue of Memorial Day weekend celebrations this year will be tinged with orange on the heels of the decision by the Department of Homeland Security to raise the national terrorism threat level. Extra security measures from M-16-toting National Guard troops patrolling the Golden Gate Bridge to airport-like screening of visitors at Washington monuments are now in place.
THIS IS ONLY THE fourth time that the threat level has been raised to Code Orange since the color-coded scheme was implemented in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but the second time it has happened since February.
Although Department of Homeland Security officials have cited no specific threats to U.S. targets, increased “chatter” monitored by intelligence agencies has provided enough concern to raise the threat level from yellow to orange, DHS officials said.
The large crowds typically drawn to the festivities surrounding traditional Memorial Day celebrations were specifically mentioned as a cause for concern Tuesday by Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security in the Department of Homeland Security, during a news conference announcing the raising of the threat level.
The whipsaw raising and lowering of the threat level induces fear in some and insults others, especially just before the holiday weekend.
“With the end of the war, we started to feel secure, but with the new terror alert it just messes up your life again,” said Margaret K. of Levittown, Pa., who did not want her last name used. “It puts fear back into your life and now we have to be on guard all the time.”
Margaret said her family was going to the Jersey shore for the holiday weekend, “which personally I’d rather cancel if it were up to me.” But because she’s going with other family members “nobody else wants to change it,” Margaret said.
Her concern? “The crowds. Not knowing now with all the suicide bombers if anyone is going to come into the crowd on the boardwalk and do something.”
And then there’s Shani S. who said defiantly in an e-mail to MSNBC: “I’ve been a lifelong resident of NYC and nothing scares me anymore. New Yorkers are a hardy bunch.”
NO CHANGE IN EVENTS
Although state and local officials have responded to the call for increased security measures, holiday events are being carried off on schedule.
At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500, no extraordinary security measures are in place, said spokesman Bob Clidinst. The speedway bumped up its normal security measures after 9-11 and has maintained that level of security at all subsequent events, he said.
For Sunday’s race, there will be two or three uniformed Indianapolis police officers at each of the speedway’s 12 gates and all packages, handbags and the like will be searched, Clidinst said. Undercover police officers will patrol the crowds in addition to the state troopers that are always at race events, he said. In addition, the Secret Service has done its own security sweep of the racetrack owing to the expected attendance of President Bush and former President Clinton, Clidinst said.
And there will be no blimps over the racetrack; indeed, the Federal Aviation Authority has put a ban on air traffic over all sports stadiums for the duration of the weekend.
MALL-TO-MALL SECURITY MEASURES
From the Mall of America to the Mall of monuments in Washington, D.C., security measures are being ramped up for the holiday weekend and in the wake of the heightened terrorist alert.
The 4.2 million square feet of shopping and entertainment that makes up the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., is a classic “soft target” for terrorism. No one knows that better than the mall staff.
“We are what we are,” said Monica Davis, a spokeswoman for the mall. But knowing that means the mall’s security staff has worked overtime to make the shopping environment safe and secure, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 when the mall implemented several increased security measures “that we’ve never come down from,” Davis said. Those include a Bloomington police station right inside the mall and “BJ” the mall’s own bomb sniffing dog.
Extra security measures for Code Orange include the placing of concrete barriers in front of the main entrances. “We like to push the traffic away from those entrances during high alert,” Davis said.
On the Mall in Washington, where the traditional Memorial Day concert takes place, concertgoers won’t be allowed to mingle as freely as they have in years past. The Capitol Hill police intend to have people go through special entrances to a fenced in concert area and all attendees will have to go through a metal detector.
And the U.S. Park Service is implementing “airport type security,” said David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service, screening of visitors to seven “nation icon” sites: the Washington monument, the White House, the Liberty Bell pavilion in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the St. Louis Arch, Liberty Island in New York Harbor, the USS Constitution in Boston and Federal Hall in New York City, which is close to the New York Stock Exchange.
The park service will bring in some 200 law enforcement rangers from the West to help staff 12-hour shifts, mainly for sites in the East, Barna said.
EVEN MORE SECURITY IN N.Y.
New York has never come off high alert status; it operates under its own increased security plan. Still, when the national threat level is raised to orange, New York deploys more officers to high-profile sites like bridges, tunnels and other “soft targets.”
Out West, California Gov. Gray Davis put the California Highway Patrol on 12-hour shifts while the Coast Guard began stepped-up patrols in San Francisco Bay. However, during a news conference, Davis went out of his way to say that “there is no specific threat against California at this time. However, an abundance of information from around the world caused the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to raise the alert level.”
The Golden Gate Bridge remains open, including the pedestrian walkways, but National Guard troops are now in place, and hiking and biking trails under the bridge have been closed.
Extra security measures at the state, local and federal levels in place for the holiday will remain, officials say, until the federal threat level is once again lowered. Just how long the threat level remains raised is critical. To cash-strapped state and local jurisdictions, the extra costs of heightened security are devastating. Washington has promised to funnel money to cities through the states, but so far little cash has actually made it into the hands of mayors.