Americans are accustomed to taking part in their annual Independence Day festivities with few concerns for their safety. Now, for the first time since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the U.S. has gone on alert and is preparing for the possibility of another terrorist attack to mar the 4 July celebrations. Despite this, officials are encouraging all Americans to continue their normal activities this holiday season amid enhanced security.
Washington, 3 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For more than two centuries, 4 July has been a special day for Americans to commemorate their independence from Britain. Each year millions of U.S. citizens celebrate the holiday with picnics, sailing, parades, and fireworks.
Though the festivities will continue as usual on Thursday, many Americans feel this Independence Day will be different from others. Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, patriotism has increased, along with the public's apprehension about the possibility of renewed terrorism.
U.S. officials have warned Americans to take extra precautions. The FBI has advised state and local law-enforcement agencies to be on alert, and additional air and ground security is under way at several major cities across the country. Though no specific threats have been made for the holiday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that several intelligence reports are advising the U.S. to be on guard.
But Powell also urged citizens to keep their plans for 4 July and to enjoy the holiday.
Leon Fuerth agrees. He served as national-security adviser to Vice President Al Gore during the previous presidential administration, and now is a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington.
Fuerth told RFE/RL that Americans should not let the threat of a terrorist attack spoil their plans. Besides, he said, the government seems well-prepared for virtually any eventuality. "I assume that the United States has been doing everything it possibly can, that means that every agency in the government that could possibly be useful in blocking an attack is undoubtedly on a high alert and has been so for some time so I'm not sure how much else is left to be done," Fuerth said.
Special security for the holiday has already been planned in Washington and other cities. The Federal Aviation Administration is banning flights near such historical landmarks as the Statue of Liberty in New York. Fences will be erected around the National Mall in Washington, where a special concert and fireworks are planned for Thursday night. Fighter jets will be guarding several major cities, and some streets or bridges may be closed to traffic.
Despite the increased concerns and security measures, most Americans surveyed by American news media say they will go ahead with their holiday plans. They say they won't be daunted even by long lines at airports, where security is tighter than ever.
Bita Tahbaz, a student from the western U.S. state of Texas who is attending Georgetown University in Washington for the summer, exemplified this view. She told RFE/RL that she would remain in the country's capital for the holiday regardless of the concern about terrorism. "It's the Fourth of July. It's my first time in [Washington] D.C., and I've been waiting my whole life to see fireworks in Washington. I'm not going to let some fear of an act of terrorism get in my way of enjoying myself on the Fourth of July," Tahbaz said.
More than 36 million Americans are expected to celebrate their independence by traveling to visit friends or relatives, or to enjoy lakes, mountains, and seashores, according to the American Automobile Association. The vast majority of these trips will be by car.
Some Americans might be worried by airline-security test results released last month by the U.S. government's Transportation Security Administration. Tests conducted at several U.S. airports show that airport scanners failed to detect false weapons in at least one-fourth of the tests.
Outside the United States, American forces in Afghanistan will also be on the lookout this holiday season for terrorism. An audio interview with Osama bin Laden, released last month, poses the possibility of future attacks from surviving Al-Qaeda leaders.
On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was asked what advice he had for Americans for Independence Day whether they are traveling abroad or staying in the country. He said he felt all U.S. citizens should maintain an increased level of awareness for their personal security regardless of their location. "It all boils down to saying, 'Exercise caution, exercise vigilance, be careful, and have a good time,'" Boucher said.
Already, the State Department has told Americans traveling overseas to refrain from large gatherings with other Americans. It cited what it called "credible" indications that extremists are planning terrorist actions against U.S. interests abroad.
The warning said the attacks could be imminent, but it stressed that it had no information about specific targets, timing, or methods.