Return to Normal? It Won’t Be Soon

A Battery Park City resident was wondering when her life would return to normal. There were armed soldiers in the streets, she told a radio reporter. Soldiers and military checkpoints-in downtown Manhattan. When would life be normal again?

The resurgent New York Mets played what was, in parochial baseball terms, a critical series with the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium over the weekend of Sept. 21-23. The team’s broadcasters warned fans that they shouldn’t bring backpacks or bags of any kind to the stadium, and ought to arrive early to accommodate new security procedures. When would life be normal again?

Announcements in Penn Station tell Amtrak passengers to keep their luggage in sight at all times. Police in the station are on the lookout for parcels left unattended. Commuters look warily at nearby litter baskets and recycling bins, imagining the worst. When would life be normal again?

The terrible answer must be this: not for a long, long time. Anyone who has spent time in Europe, particularly in London and Belfast, in the last few decades knows how abnormal “normal” life in New York was before Sept. 11. Halfhearted attempts at airport security? Token sign-in sheets in office towers? No special security patrols in the city’s streets? An abhorrence for police profiling? What a curious notion of “normal” such ideas now seem.

Not just the threat but the reality of terrorism forced Italians to accept soldiers with Uzis in their airports, and forced the French to accept black-clad special police in the streets of Paris. It forced Londoners to accept delays and stoppages in subway service because of real or fake threats. It forced the residents of Belfast to accept long lines at public buildings as each person was searched for weapons.

The normal routines of New York life before Sept. 11 were based on the idea that global terrorism couldn’t happen here. But it has, and New York will have to adjust accordingly and stop wondering when life will be “normal” again.

For author and writer Jack Holland, a native of Belfast, the past and the future melded into one astonishing sight on Sept. 11, a few hours after the Twin Towers fell. He was having lunch in midtown, near the Empire State Building, when he spotted a column of heavily armed soldiers in battle dress marching down Lexington Avenue. The troops set up a checkpoint and began stopping cars and interrogating drivers. “I thought, ‘My God, where am I?'” he said. “‘This can’t be America. This can’t be New York.’ It was such an unusual sight-soldiers carrying rifles and stopping cars. It could have been a scene from Belfast in 1972.”

Mr. Holland, a senior editor at the Irish Echo, lived through the abnormalities that became normal in his native city in the 1970’s. “In Belfast, a city of about 500,000 at the time, you’d have lines around the block to get into Marks and Spencer [a department store] because handbags were being searched,” Mr. Holland said. “People got used to it, but that’s impossible to imagine in New York. The sheer scale would make it impossible to administer.”

Still, New York might in other ways begin to resemble other cities that terrorists have besieged. “We’ve had bomb scares in the Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal and other places,” Mr. Holland said. “You can’t dismiss them; you have to take full measures to ensure safety, and that leads to chaos, and chaos demoralizes everybody. Over a prolonged period of time, people get worn down, and they stop coming into the city. That’s what happened in Belfast. It became an economic wasteland by 1977. People just stopped going there.”

The only effective way to return New York to some semblance of “normal” life, Mr. Holland said, is counterterrorism. His book, Phoenix: Policing the Shadows, is an account of Britain’s undercover fight against the I.R.A. “In counterterrorism, you learn quickly how valuable informers are,” Mr. Holland said. “One good informer is worth an army. If the American government is going to spend billions to conduct this war, they could save a lot of money by getting informers into these groups. If you know what the enemy is going to do, you can prevent it. And that’s the only way to stop terrorism-you have to be there when they arrive.” Britain’s Special Air Services paratroops were there several times in the 1980’s when the I.R.A. arrived. It was never a coincidence.

Recruiting informers is a dirty, unpleasant task, but an urgent one. Counterintelligence not only can head off atrocities, but has the beneficial effect of sowing dissension and distrust in enemy ranks. Of course, those who do such work are not the kind of people one expects to find on a government payroll when life is “normal.”

But, as New York residents are beginning to realize, these are not “normal” times.