NEW YORK - At the GOP convention podium, Republican speakers urged
delegates and TV viewers to re-elect President George W. Bush because
he is best able to protect us from the terrorists who are bound
and determined to kill our families and destroy our freedoms.
In and around Midtown Manhattan, convention-goers got a taste of
life in a society where the overriding goal is to stop attacks at
all costs. It was the bitter taste of losing one's freedoms, albeit
in this case for the short duration of this national convention.
It was Fortress New York. For those of us with the proper papers
- a neck-load of colored and numbered badges and IDs granting entry
to Madison Square Garden and surrounding sites - the anti-terror
lockdown meant endless annoyances, hassles and humiliations. For
those who tried to protest the convention goings-on, things were
From CBS 2 News in New York: "Some protesters have complained bitterly
about conditions at the temporary holding area set up by police
at Pier 57 in Chelsea for processing convention-related arrests.
One former detainee ... claimed he was held there for hours on end
in 'Guantanamo-style pens' - a reference to the U.S. military facility
in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."
After experiencing the goings-on at the convention center and all
around the city, I am left with a sobering conclusion: I would rather
live unprotected from terrorist attacks than in a society that resembled
New York City during convention week.
Everywhere I went, scores of police officers in riot gear, gun-toting
military officials, blue-suited secret-service officials with their
ears wired and assorted private security guards were on call, watching
us. Metal cattle gates prodded us to the proper place. Streets were
cordoned off, sidewalks open only to those who show the right ID.
Sirens were constantly wailing.
I tired of the daily hassle of getting into the Marriott Marquis,
the Times Square hotel where the California delegation was staying.
Even though it is a dozen blocks from the convention site, the security
was stiff. Two police officers manned a checkpoint at the sidewalk,
while 10 or more police stood beside their motorcycles. At the checkpoint,
all guests had to show their room key or photo ID.
Then, about 50 feet nearer the door was another checkpoint, where
security guards checked the ID once again. The area between the
checkpoints was surrounded by metal barricades, so there was no
possible way that anyone could have sneaked in between those checkpoints,
unless they jumped out of a suitcase. Don't expect reason to prevail
in a police state.
From Checkpoint No. 2, hotel guests went another 15 feet or so
into the front door, where two burly security guards again checked
the same ID. At the lobby area, one had to again show ID to enter
the elevator area, where one could finally get back to the room.
The guards didn't want to hear any grumbles. One doesn't question
procedures in a police state.
The entire city operated in a similar way. The elaborate procedures
kept changing day by day, depending on the particular authority
who was handling any given checkpoint. One day, we were ordered
- in typical, New York-blunt style - to turn on our computers before
placing them into the X-ray machine. The next day, the guard barked:
"You don't need to turn on your computer if it's going through the
Whatever. In a police state, one does what one's told. One doesn't
argue, even on the occasions when the guards were the ones with
the wrong information about proper credentials.
In a police state, every functionary has a tiny bit of authority.
Many functionaries are pleasant and polite, just doing a job and
following orders. Others are power-mad creeps, who use that authority
to put anyone who looks at them funny through unfair hassles.
No matter how thorough the plan, the rules aren't always clear
to those of us who must abide by them. There's no due process; you
do what you're told lest you end up on Pier 57 with the kooky protesters.
It will get cleared up eventually - after you've slept on a concrete
floor for two days and missed all of your deadlines.
One colleague mistakenly entered the wrong sidewalk area. One of
New York's Finest yelled at him, "Yo, get offa da sidewalk." "Where
am I supposed to go?" my friend asked. "Across da street!" As he
crossed the street, the cop patrolling that area yelled at him to
get offa da street. You can't win in a police state. But you dare
not disobey the incomprehensible orders.
At the protest march last Sunday, police didn't let the press near
the protesters. They stood as the thick, blue line separating us
from them. I was unthreatening: well dressed, properly credentialed,
in the proper place. But when I opened my sport jacket and reached
for my cell phone on my belt, I looked up at a police officer who
stared at me, acting as if I were drawing a gun.
Had he made a mistake and shot me, most people would have said,
"That's too bad, but it was an honest mistake." The story would
have been buried deep within the newspaper. That's how things go
in a police state. The police are right; the victims must have brought
it on themselves.
Now, most of the officers who checked our badges were professional
and polite, and sometimes downright friendly. One night, in lower
Manhattan, our group of lost convention-goers asked a cop for advice
on a good bar. He walked us to an Irish pub, introduced us to the
barkeep, and we were treated like royalty the entire night.
That's how police states operate, also: If you are friends with
the right official, you get privileges.
Strangely enough, many people easily accommodate themselves to
a world of checkpoints, meddling, barricades and ID-showing. Many
of the convention-goers and media were ingratiating and openly thankful
to the men and women who were searching them, prodding them and
It made me passive-aggressive. I always showed the wrong side of
the room key to the third Marriott guard, just to yank his chain.
I was polite, but the resentment built up. That's what happens to
some people when they are constantly bossed around.
Whenever I criticize intrusive government actions or misbehavior
by police or federal agents, someone will say: "If you didn't do
anything wrong, you don't have anything to fear." Well, I certainly
didn't do anything wrong as I obediently navigated the inconsistent
and intrusive security rules that governed life at the GOP convention
last week, but I would greatly fear a world that operated in a similar
By the way, despite the creation of a fortress, the New York Daily
News reported significant breaches in security, as delegates handed
out unused badges. An uncredentialed reporter was inside the arena,
listening to the vice president's speech, within five hours. So
even with a police state, there's no guarantee of safety.
Life is a risk. As Benjamin Franklin said, those who trade away
their freedom for a little security deserve neither.