Ybor street closure feeds culture of paranoia

On Feb. 7, the St. Pertersburg Times reported that Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee stood before City Council members holding a report from the Department of Homeland Security he said detailed all the dangers that could befall his operations center in Ybor City. Gee wouldn’t tell them what it said, however.

“I don’t think it’s responsible for me to expose our vulnerabilities,” he said.

American society has officially reached a point at which it can’t distinguish real danger from perceived danger. I know that the world will never be the same since Sept. 11 changed everything, but the extreme state of paranoia that grasps the nation isn’t healthy for anybody. Many see a Middle Eastern man on a plane and assume he is the devil incarnate, plotting to blow himself up to kill hundreds of innocent people in the name of religion. He might be as peaceful and kind as a friendly neighbor, but people raise their guard just because of the way he dresses.

I’m not denying that certain cities and landmarks in the United States are in real danger of being terrorist targets, but let’s not pretend that the sheriff’s office in Ybor City’s modest 20th Street is the target of an intricate international terrorist plot. This type of thinking leads to the current situation, one in which innocent people are losing money while the street remains closed in the name of national security.

Shame on the City Council members who caved to fear and passed the proposal to gate off the street with a 5-1 vote. I agree with Tony LaColla, president of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association, who told the Times that “in this country, a lot of scare tactics are thrown out in the name of national security and it’s slowly chipping away at our rights.”

Shame on Congress, which for the last couple of years has been hell-bent on subpoenaing baseball players to help “clean up baseball” instead of paying attention to far more urgent issues, like the events taking place in Iraq and Iran. Those issues – not steroid use – are real dangers.

When I found out about the closing of 20th Street, Gee’s claim wasn’t what surprised me; what surprised me was how easily the proposal passed. The City Council did question Gee’s motives, but it seemed lost and didn’t inquire much into what the report contained. Instead, City Council members chose the easy way out and decided to close the street, erring on the side of caution.

If they are wrong about closing the street, they can easily issue a quick retraction and apology. But if they were to keep the street open, and something happened similar to whatever was contained in the report in Gee’s possession, they would be picked apart for not listening to the warnings and not taking preventive measures that could have saved lives.

The quick, fearful reaction the City Council had toward the report is a perfect example of what has happened to this country because of President Bush’s policy of fear – a policy that will hopefully end once the next president is elected.

A second, final vote regarding the closing of 20th Street will take place on Feb. 21, and I strongly and sincerely hope that City Council members will have had enough time to change their minds and overturn the first vote. That way we can take the first steps toward getting rid of the extreme fear and paranoia that are hurting our society.

Martin Bater is a junior majoring in mass communications.