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A new New York state of mind

So now it turns out that the intelligence about an imminent attack on New York City subways last week may have been a hoax. Or it may have been true. Or something in between. Given the murky and duplicitous world of intelligence gathering, we probably will never know.

There is one thing, though, that we do know as we sort through the urban legends and the conflicting foreign intelligence: Most New Yorkers seem to have been willing to tolerate the ambiguity and anxiety that goes with a nonspecific warning, even at the very moment that the reliability of the information was being publicly debated.

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However, not all New Yorkers are showing this level of civic maturity just yet. Rather than be relieved that an explosive-laden baby stroller didn't incinerate a car full of subway passengers, a few - perhaps for political gain - are accusing officials of scaring us unnecessarily. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who did his best to carefully weigh the evidence and be open rather than secretive, has been criticized by some who insist that terrorism warnings be based only on rock-solid evidence.

So now is a good time to acknowledge the new rules of public responsibility in the age of terror. Shooting the messenger is not the way to face threats like terrorism. We can demand that our public officials tell the truth and never exploit warnings for political gain, but do we really want them to fear our electoral wrath simply because their best judgment about a threat turns out not to be right?

Better to simply admit that we are anxious, that we wish 9/11 had never happened, that we are mad that our friends and family have to live in a world where terrorism is real, and give public officials the room they need to make very tough calls.

Our next test will be braving a media storm about a possible avian influenza epidemic. Scientists could face the vexing challenge of clearly explaining a complex virus. Officials may have to decide when warnings are warranted. What we have to decide is if we are willing to listen and try to understand them or if we will angrily dismiss their efforts if the potential virus doesn't unfold in a rational, predictable manner.

A subway that didn't explode is good news. A mayor that struggled with conflicting evidence and took the risky leap of public disclosure is doing his job. And a public that allows him to be wrong is acting with courage and living in the real world of unpredictability - one where dangers will not be conveniently scheduled.

Steven Gorelick is professor of media studies at Hunter College, City University in New York, and chair of the board of advisers of the National Center for Critical Incident Analysis.


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