Saturday, August 16, 2003

Pulling together

Blackout II: Lite crime

One heartening surprise from Thursday's massive blackout was that it did not unleash crime sprees in New York, Cleveland, Detroit and other big U.S. cities that went dark. Police in Ottawa, Canada's capital city, did report serious looting.

The spirit of solidarity awakened by 9/11 terrorist attacks still seems to be alive and well in New York City and beyond. The power grid failed, but the lesson of 9/11 is that American power doesn't depend on electric transmission lines or military might. It comes from Americans of all sorts sticking together, looking out for each other.

It hasn't always been that way in the Big Apple. A 25-hour blackout that struck New York on July 13, 1977, triggered widespread looting and arson, especially in the city's poor neighborhoods. Then Mayor Abe Beame called it a "night of terror." Opportunists of every stripe caused more than a billion dollars worth of damage, and some 3,800 were arrested. Looters even looted looters, at gun and knifepoint. Fires burned throughout the city. Nobody remembers that one fondly.

What a difference a few decades, and some tough-minded mayors, can make. Mayor Michael Bloomberg Thursday was out and about urging calm, as was Gov. George Pataki. But just as after 9/11, ordinary citizens stepped up by the thousands, directed traffic, sold flashlights and candles, shared rides, did whatever it took to help each other out. Commuters slept outside on post office steps without incident.

New York did report double the usual 911 calls, from hot weather emergencies and numerous fires, but this time they were caused by candle accidents, not arsonists.

Neither Cleveland nor Detroit reported major crime problems. If water shortages and rolling blackouts persist into the weekend, some of the usual suspects may yet try to take advantage. Such greed is contemptible. Police also have to be on the lookout for terrorists who might try to exploit this time of increased vulnerability.

But New Yorkers can tap into a long tradition of priding themselves on showing pluck and unflappability in times of crisis. It's a trait not limited to New York, and all the more so after Sept. 11. The blackout has given us another opportunity to show the world how Americans pull together in time of stress or threat.

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