My first brush with terrorism came in 1973, when I was 18 and living in London on what the English call a working holiday. It was a weird time to be a teenager at large in the United Kingdom. London was under siege from a relentless IRA bombing campaign. Bobbies patrolled the streets for explosives. Posters and public announcements in the underground told Londoners to report suspicious bags. Bombs seemed to be going off everywhere, in cars and pubs and shopping arcades and telephone kiosks. Bomb threats were common-one was phoned into a Leicester Square movie theater while I was watching The Sting. On occasion I actually heard a distant explosion; more commonly, the wail of sirens. London was an exciting place to be; the bombs heightened the excitement, but did not seem directed at me, an invincible 18-year-old American.
On December 21, 1973, I went to a post office near Trafalgar Square to call my girlfriend back home. As I waited for a phone, I heard a loud thump, as if a huge fist had pounded on a drum the size of a house. A bomb, certainly, and to my ears it sounded like it might have been detonated right outside the post office, though in fact it had gone off more than a hundred yards away. I walked outside into noisy chaos familiar to anyone who has watched newscasts from Israel in recent months. Pulsing blue lights swept the darkness; police cars sped by in one direction and people fled in the other. This was too close, and I had no desire to linger. As I walked home up Charing Cross Road, wired with adrenaline, scanning parked cars with a horrible new interest, something had changed.
I had experienced the profound shift in understanding that can follow a brush with disaster: Where there had been a kind of blinkered, confident obliviousness, now there was a panicky conviction about my utter vulnerability.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers
boarded four jetliners, none having been stopped by the Swiss cheese operation that passed for airport security, and launched an attack that caused a nationwide shift in perception like the one I had experienced courtesy of the IRA. America suddenly had its technology turned against it with box cutters and domestic flight-school training. Pilots were murdered, transponders turned off, and commercial airplanes flown into symbols of wealth, government, and military power-while high-tech U.S. defense systems desperately and fruitlessly tried to figure out what was going on.
Ever since, we've been told by our government to expect more attacks, with the addition of a handy color-coded system to tell us how nervous we should be. What we've not been told as often is that, at the big-city level, at ground zero, where so many Americans live, the degree of protection remains woefully low-not much better than it was before September 11. Much of the problem is money, and the will to find it. In a June survey, an overwhelming majority of city mayors claimed they lacked the resources and technology to protect their cities, with more than three-quarters saying they were unable to pay for detection and emergency-response equipment. That may begin to change this fall, thanks to a White House pledge of $3.5 billion to city, county, and state governments for first-responder technology and crews. That money would come a full year after the attacks.