Ridge met by tough crowd - Audience at homeland security meeting questions Bush administration policies
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge found Seattleites in no mood yesterday to participate in his efforts to engage Americans in preparations for terrorist attacks.
At a town hall meeting billed as a forum for citizens to voice their concerns, Ridge was met with more questions about Bush administration policies that allegedly damage Americans' freedoms at home and their reputation abroad than about homeland security.
Ridge told the Seattle University audience of about 350 people that terrorists seeking targets likely will look to places such as Seattle -- a large city, with international ports near the Canadian border. And Ridge declared that "we will not give up any freedom" to secure the country from terrorists.
But that assertion was quickly challenged by a skeptical audience split between members of the public and such public servants involved in homeland security as high-ranking police, firefighters and public-health professionals.
One man got to his feet and held aloft a sign dubbing the U.S. Patriot Act as a "threat to U.S. democracy" before it was ripped from his hands.
He was quickly followed by Paul Thomas, a recent graduate of Seattle University.
"We're probably more afraid of being hit by lightning than a terrorist attack. What we're afraid of is the Department of Homeland Security," Thomas said.
Seattle University law professor Marilyn Berger followed with an indictment of the Bush administration's conduct of justice at the Guantanamo Bay prison for people accused of terrorism. Berger, who noted that "we deny them the rule of law, we don't have court hearings, we don't give them access to attorneys," said such policies will encourage global disdain for the United States.
Ridge responded that "from the president on down, there is a commitment not to infringe on personal freedoms." And he defended the Patriot Act as a reasonable extension of law enforcement tools commonly used against drug traffickers and mobsters to the battle against terrorism.
The audience was not prevented from expressing concerns about administration policies, but the meeting's agenda was how to involve citizens in homeland security.
That includes first responders to emergencies. Among them was A.D. Vickery, Seattle assistant fire chief, who said Seattle is more likely to suffer a catastrophic natural disaster than a catastrophic act of terror.
"I would ask that people not let politics get in the way of preparedness," Vickery said.
And Patricia McGinnis, president of the non-partisan Council for Excellence in Government, which produced yesterday's meeting and those in other major American cities, challenged members of the audience raising concerns about the Patriot Act to get involved by sending their opinions to the council.
The council will issue recommendations in May based on the seven town hall meetings and a poll gauging American attitudes toward homeland security, McGinnis said.
When she asked for a show of hands of those willing to volunteer in homeland security efforts, perhaps only 20 hands were raised.
McGinnis said the response was in sharp contrast to other areas of the country where people were eager to volunteer but uncertain as to how they could do so. Similar forums have been held in St. Louis, Miami, San Diego, Houston and Boston, among others.
Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg had an explanation: "The reluctance to volunteer is an issue of credibility of homeland security."
He said his concerns about how the world perceived the United States drive his anxieties about homeland security.
"I don't think anymore we are able to separate homeland security from the broader issues of animosity toward the United States generated by the administration's policies," said Sundborg, a Jesuit priest.
Ridge called the reaction of the Seattle audience and its contrast to other parts of the United States, "uniquely American. If you had access to the information I've had, you would know that the threat is real.
"In the post-9/11 world, we are more introspective about who we are and how we want to be viewed both domestically and internationally," Ridge said. "We have to work every day to preserve these freedoms that make us unique."
Outside the hall, police arrested one of about a dozen protesters conducting political theater on the streets by blaring the Muslim call to prayer over dual loudspeakers.
Police say that they approached a man to warn him that he was running afoul of Seattle's noise ordinance. When he did not heed their warnings, police were going to write him a ticket but took him into custody instead when he gave them a false name, police spokeswoman Deanna Nollette said.
Upon searching him, officers say they discovered what they believed is counterfeit money and booked him into the King County Jail for investigation of forgery.
P-I reporter Paul Shukovsky can be reached at 206-448-8072 or email@example.com
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