Rights & Freedoms

Public safety in New York

As National Guard troops in battle dress marched through downtown streets in the days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, New Yorkers asked one another whether this was the future. Was their wounded city-the symbolic capital of the globalized economy-to be patrolled by rifle-carrying soldiers, much like some besieged third-world capital? President George W. Bush’s address to the nation on September 21 made this possibility even more real when he warned: "We will take defensive measures against terrorism to protect Americans."

In past criminal crises, the federal government has shown a fairly light touch in New York, treating the city and its police department with the respect normally due a sovereign. Indeed, while touring the ruins of the World Trade Center, Bush seemed to defer to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as guest to host. During the president’s address to Congress, Giuliani was seated to the left of Laura Bush, the highest placement in social terms.

But the days of federal deference to New York may soon be over. A safe America requires a safe New York-no president can permit New York to remain an island. But every increment in security will come at a cost, and the costs will be social and political as well as financial. They will threaten to undermine the city’s very being and sense of itself as freewheeling, entrepreneurial, and invincible. New York had spent the nineties fighting crime...

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About the Author

Julia Vitullo-Martin edited Breaking Away: The Future of Cities (Twentieth Century Fund Press). She was a Vista Volunteer, a civil rights worker, and an antiwar protester during the sixties.