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Nicole Gelinas
How Not to Fight Urban Terror
The mayor wants New Yorkers to use their eyes and ears—but his fuss over last weekend’s tour-bus kerfuffle will dissuade them.
29 July 2005

Islamist terrorists have twice targeted London’s Tube in the past month. Since the London attacks, Mayor Bloomberg, the NYPD, and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority have essentially deputized transit workers and riders in New York to be on watch for would-be attackers here. “If you see something, say something,” the MTA exhorts the public. Since London’s 7/7, NYPD officers have boarded MTA buses to instruct drivers and riders on what to look for: a rider wearing a heavy coat in summer, for example, or someone who looks nervous fiddling with a large package. The mayor himself has told New Yorkers to call 911 or 311 to report concerns about suspicious activity.

But now the mayor is unhappy with his diligent new deputies—and has singled a few of them out for public scorn. On Sunday, one worker on a Gray Line double-decker tour bus in Midtown Manhattan observed five young passengers acting suspiciously and, taking his duty seriously, notified the bus driver. Accounts vary, but the Gray Line dispatcher who called the police reported that the tourists, of South Asian descent, had purchased their tickets in advance and had boarded with stuffed pockets and backpacks. “I was definitely frightened from the beginning,” the driver, Mohammed Stout, told the Daily News. “That’s human nature.”

The cops came quickly, ushered the passengers off the bus, and handcuffed the five men to search all passengers’ bags. The search turned up nothing. The cops determined that the five men were British tourists, and sent the tour group, including the detained men, on its way.

That was that. But if Gray Line’s workers expected praise from Gotham’s mayor, they were disappointed. The mayor unaccountably singled out Gray Line and its workers for a public thrashing.

Bloomberg stopped just short of branding Gray Line’s employees liars: “They didn’t even have any knapsacks,” he said of the five British men. “Just state the facts as you see them. . . . In this case, clearly, it was not warranted. . . . It turned out that these . . . people did not present any threat.” The mayor further instructed New Yorkers to use “common sense” in the future and to avoid racial profiling.

The detained British tourists, for their part, seemed unruffled. “These things happen, don’t they?” one said to the News. But just in case, the mayor apologized to them on behalf of all New Yorkers: “It’s a shame,” he noted.

But it’s the mayor’s response to the incident that was shameful—and dangerous. The mayor’s civic throttling of Gray Line’s workers will surely cause New York’s competitive tourist industry to second guess itself in the future. By carelessly castigating the tour-bus workers as exaggerators and racists, the mayor has wrapped several layers of gauze around the eyes and ears of tourist workers and of other watchful New Yorkers.

For a real dose of common sense, Bloomberg should remember: New Yorkers who do pay attention to a fellow passenger’s gender, race, age, nationality, language, or religious emblems in the context of other suspicious behavior aren’t irrational: despite police rhetoric about “random searches,” it is not Japanese students or African-American grandmothers who have declared war on the West. (And, with a first name like Mohammed, it’s doubtful that Gray Line’s bus driver is an unreconstructed white racist.) But workers, and their bosses, now will think twice about calling the cops to report odd behavior, especially if a dark-skinned young male is at the root of it.

And thinking too hard and long before calling 911 could cost lives.

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More by Nicole Gelinas:
Choosing Citi Bike
Too Soon for Answers in Harlem
West Side Story
More . . .
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