Is New York really ready to put a suspected terrorist on trial?

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As New York City copes with the knowledge that it will soon host the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11 terror attacks, there is growing concern about the security of the city and its inhabitants.

The towering prison where Mohammed will be held and the courtroom where he will be tried are a short walk from the site of the Twin Towers and not far from Wall Street. It doesn't take Nostradamus to see how the combination of a prominent location, a showy trial and a bustling city could have terrorists licking their lips.
Potentially Devastating

Over the past eight years, New York City, particularly the Financial District, has grown accustomed to extremely high security. Local Law 26, enacted in 2004, outlines extensive precautions that every Class B office building must take to protect against biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear events. Every building over 75 feet tall must have an Emergency Action Plan detailing contingencies for the occupants during a disaster; this includes procedures to evacuate the building, relocate within the building -- or even live in one's office for several days.

Employees of consulting firm Homeland Safety are helping New York businesses prepare for potential terrorist scenarios during the upcoming Mohammed trial, says principal Mike Presutti. "We're in a heightened state of alert," he said, cautioning that civic officials tend to fight the previous battle, rather than preparing for the next one. Local Law 26 protects office buildings against a 9/11–style attack, but has no provisions for theaters, subways or other public spaces. Given New York's dependence on its subways, and the vulnerability of its transportation infrastructure, this could be a potentially devastating shortcoming.

And most people instinctively run from emergencies -- an instinct that Presutti says could be deadly during a biological or chemical attack. "A low-impact terrorist event could cause hysteria," he says, leading to stampeding, trampling, and high-impact damage.

Emotional Costs...

The danger of hysteria became obvious when a Presidential jet flew near lower Manhattan this year. The promotional photo flight, terrified office workers for whom the fear of an airborne attack remains exceedingly vivid. As rattling windows sent civilians running into the streets, the event convinced many New Yorkers that the Obama administration was either unaware or unsympathetic to their painful lingering memories of September 11, 2001.

New York Gov. David A. Paterson has criticized the decision to hold Mohammed's trial in the city: "It's very painful. We're still having trouble getting over it. We still have been unable to rebuild that site and having those terrorists so close to the attack is gonna be an encumbrance on all New Yorkers."

...and Economic Costs

But beyond the emotional impact, the Mohammed trial will carry a very real economic cost. While the New York Police Department and the New York State Office of Homeland Security seem confident that they can protect New Yorkers, the preparation for worst-case terrorist scenarios and the increased police presence will cost millions. And for businesses in New York, the inevitable transportation slowdowns and preparedness drills could cost the city billions in lost productivity.

While there's great symbolic power in trying Mohammed and his suspected co-conspirators in the city they're charged with brutally attacking, New York's greatest revenge lies in having survived the attack, remaining productive and continuing to rebuild. To the extent that the trial gets in the way of that, it will continue the horror that began in 2001.

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