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San Diego: gripped by the fear factor
Poll reveals 84% of residents of border city expect to be target
Duncan Campbell in San Diego
Saturday September 29, 2001 The Guardian
The waiting list for gas masks at GI Joe's army surplus store on Sixth Avenue in San Diego is now 118 names long. Emergency ration kits are the next big seller, along with Old Glory decals and Osama bin Laden T-shirts. Just up the street, at Ace Uniforms and Accessories, the gas mask sales at $200 (£125) a time have been eclipsed by those for bullet-proof vests and flak jackets, some of them bought by military personnel who say their standard issue protection is not up to the job. Business is booming for all forms of survival equipment in this city on the border with Mexico. For while San Diego may be almost the furthest American city from the attacks, it considers itself under siege. A poll by the local San Diego Union-Tribune found that 84% of its citizens see it as a likely terrorist target.
"If there's a nuclear war, we'll be the first wiped out," said Todd Strachan, 26, as he served customers at Ace Uniforms. "San Diego has to be a target. Living this close to the border, you can smuggle a nuclear bomb in the back of a van." He cited the many potential nearby military bases, including Camp Pendleton marine camp, as reasons for the city to be jittery.
Steve Schmidt, the reporter who worked on the Union-Tribune story about fear of attack, said yesterday that there were three main reasons why people in this city of 1.1m people felt vulnerable: the proximity of military bases, the closeness of the border and the fact that three of the hijackers, Nawaq Alhazmi, Khalid Al-Midhar and Hani Hanjour, had lived in the area. There has also been a series of arrests of other Muslims in the area over the last few days as part of the investigation.
Across the city, the fear factor has played a part in keeping people off the streets and out of the restaurants. In the Gaslamp district, which is the main tourist area, restaurants and bars, draped in flags and messages of national solidarity, report disastrous business. Miriam Carmona, who works at the La Strada Trattoria, said: "Bookings are 50% down. People just don't come any more. They have just disappeared." The restaurant has lost not only its tourist trade but custom from the convention centre, since conferences have been one of the main commercial casualties of the attacks.
Further north at Jimmy's restaurant on Midway Drive, the story has been the same. "Everything has slowed down," said Stephen Weighill, who works in the restaurant. "Three days after it happened, this restaurant died. People are just glued to the television. They were transfixed. But Americans have very short attention spans so it will be interesting to see how long it lasts."
One business which is not suffering is the gunsmith's. Gun licence applications in California in the last two weeks have been 40% higher than usual. Glocks, Brownings and Berettas are joining flags and banners as top sales items and ammunition sales are doubling and tripling. Fear of all kinds of attack are evident. On Wednesday, 125 miles to the north in Los Angeles, 16 subway stations and a main thoroughfare were closed after people complained of dizziness and fears of a biological attack spread. Twenty fire engines and eight ambulances attended the scene and 25 people were treated for what may turn out to have been a gas leak.
There were fears of a different kind being expressed at the Islamic Centre on Balboa Avenue in San Diego. Jamal Awadallah, a Jordanian-born salesman who came to San Diego 12 years ago, trembled as he spoke of the arrest last weekend of his younger brother, Osama "Sam" Awadallah, a student at San Diego state university who worked part-time as a security guard. Awadallah was one of three Muslim students arrested in San Diego over the last few days by the FBI and still held without charge.
"I know he has nothing to do with this," said Jamal Awadallah, who was wearing a red, white and blue Together We Stand buttonhole. "We are very frightened." He said he had seen his brother in custody: "He seems very scared. He is gaunt and has dark circles under his eyes. His eyes are bloodshot as if he has been crying. He wants to help in any way he can."
The younger Awadallah had previously worked at Sam's Star Mart petrol station where one of the hijackers had worked. Jamal Awadallah said that he did not know whether his brother was being held in San Diego or had been flown for questioning to New York.
Muna Ismail, who described herself as "the best friend" of another arrested man, Mudhar Abdallah, a Somalian, said he had come to America because he wanted to make his future there. She said that there had been no need for the gunpoint arrest carried out in front of her by the FBI. "I want to tell everybody that all the Muslims love the United States," she said.
Because of threats to the centre, already the target for firecrackers and insults, two police squad cars are parked beside it. Local clerics from Lutheran, Catholic and Episcopal churches have signed a large poster which is placed at the door of the mosque calling for an end to attacks on mosques and Arab Americans.
But not everyone in San Diego is fearful. Leading estate agent Gregg Neuman said: "I think people are jittery everywhere. You could be in a little town in Alabama and be jittery." Although the top end of the property market had suffered, sales remained robust, he said.
And two teenagers playing chess in the sun on a downtown sidewalk said they were not bothered about the possibility of an imminent attack. "It just gives people here a reason to be paranoid - even more than they normally are," said Kendra as she pondered her next move.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), September 29, 2001