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1999 In Review: Fear Of Terrorist Attacks Won't Stop Most American Celebrations

Washington, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Despite persistent fears of possible terrorist acts, millions of Americans are forging ahead with plans to greet the Year 2000 with music, fireworks and other midnight celebrations.

Elected leaders in the nation's biggest cities -- with one notable exception -- have assured citizens that public safety departments have taken all possible precautions, and that no one will be taken by surprise -- either before or after clocks across the country start striking the midnight hour.

Americans, depending upon their location, will celebrate the New Year anywhere from six to nine hours after most Europeans. For example, New York City is six hours behind Central European Time (CET), Chicago in the Midwest is seven hours behind CET, the Rocky Mountain states are eight hours behind and California and the rest of the Pacific Coast are nine hours behind.

The biggest New Year celebrations, and those likely to attract the most attention, are planned in New York -- the nation's most populous city -- and Washington, D.C., the nation's capital.

According to the New York Times newspaper, the city's celebration may draw up to two million people. Officials have stressed that there is no information suggesting that New York is a target, but 8,000 police will guard the Times Square area. The city has already welded shut all street manhole covers, removed trash containers and will tow away parked cars from a 1.6 kilometer stretch of midtown Manhattan that will be the center of the celebration.

Even with all of the precautions, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani says there are no absolute guarantees of safety and that the mere act of living involves risk. He told a press conference this week:

"We have spent a lot of time planning for this, we have an enormous amount invested in security, both Y2K and otherwise. I cannot -- no mayor , no governor, no president can offer anyone perfect security -- we can't do it for New Year's, we can't do it for today, we can't do it for any day. I mean, there are risks in life. Life contains a level of risk, to live it and to do it, that exists when you walk across the street. So, you know, you've got to deal with it, You have to be able to deal with a certain level of risk in anything that you do."

In Washington, where both the city government and the federal government plan mammoth New Year's Eve parties, Giuliani's admonition was seconded by the U.S. State Department's top anti-terrorism specialist, Michael Sheehan. He told the Associated Press that he himself plans to attend, and enjoy, the national New Year's Eve celebration near the White House. Said Sheehan: "There are no guarantees in life."

The fear of terrorist activity rose sharply in the U.S. following State Department warnings issued on Dec. 11 and Dec. 21. While it cited no particular threat inside the U.S., the department warned Americans traveling abroad that U.S. citizens could be terrorist targets on New Year's Eve.

The U.S. government is spending about $12 million for the national celebration in Washington, which will include a specially commissioned film by renowned director Steven Spielberg, musical and dramatic performances by noted authors and celebrities, plus a light show that organizers say will be spectacular. President Bill Clinton will preside over the ceremonies.

Hollywood producer George Stevens, who has helped organize the event, told reporters that he and his colleagues are not worried. He said: "I have a feeling that the space we're on, on Friday night is going to be the safest place in the United States."

About 1,100 kilometers west of Washington, in Chicago, the nation's third most populous city plans its own distinctive celebration to welcome the Year 2000. Mayor Richard Daley has invited two people from nearly 200 countries and territories to join the city's festivities. The idea came in the form of an electronic mail sent last year by Bernardino de Vincenzi, a city worker in Vigevano, Italy. He suggested that the city have a party and invite "ordinary" people from every country on Earth.

Bernardino will be coming, along with his wife and two children. The city set aside $1.5 million for the project and received another $1.5 million in donations to cover the costs of airline tickets, hotel rooms and winter clothing for the city's normally frigid New Year's.

The big exception to the official municipal parties is the Pacific Coast city of Seattle. Mayor Paul Schell announced earlier this week that the city would curtail its official celebrations six hours before midnight because of security concerns.

At a press conference, the mayor said:

"Making that decision was a tough task, but after talking with everybody in the police department, the fire department, getting the most current information from the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and the U.S. Attorney and in consultation with the (city) council ... and we've had a thorough examination of all the risks attendant to this decision, and based on the fact that it's a very different sort of event. It's not like every other New Year's Eve."

Commentators noted that the city's decision was certainly guided by recent events. Seattle was the scene of mob violence that was intended to disrupt the World Trade Organization meeting there earlier this month. No terrorist threats have been made against Seattle, but city officials said they cannot rule out a resurgence of anarchist groups held responsible for the WTO violence.

The mayor said officials were also concerned over arrest two weeks ago of an Algerian charged with illegally carrying bomb-making materials from Canada into Washington state.