Nonthrax, Nonchalance At the U.N.
The latest white powder scare once again turned out to be a false alarm, but a reminder - in more ways than one - of lurking dangers.
A suspicious package leaking white powder was found near CNN's office at U.N. headquarters Friday, prompting officials to cordon off the area, but preliminary tests showed the substance appeared to be flour, U.N. officials said.
"On the basis of preliminary results, the substance does not appear to be harmful but some tests continue," U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said Friday night. "It appears to flour."
Still, the incident follows close behind other nonthrax scares at the Lincoln Memorial in November and at Bill Clinton's Harlem office in October. However benign the substances were found to be, the episodes highlight the continued ease with which an Anthrax-bearing individual could apparently get the agent into sensitive areas.
Worse still, according to journalists in the vicinity of the affected CNN office Friday, is the woeful lack of preparedness and sound decision making on display.
The U.N. is lucky to be physically situated in New York, protected by the NYPD and other elite emergency services. They're unlucky the NYPD was appropriately mindful of the body's territorial authority. So are the citizens of New York.
[NYPD HazMat officers] warned those in the U.N. "hotzone" that no final determination on what the mystery material is could be reached before late Sunday.
As such, the NYPD offered workers impacted by the "event" two options:
1. Consent to de-contamination. That meant taking body showers and impounding all clothing until further notice. The NYPD offered to supply a biohazard suit to return home, replacing the sequestered clothing.
2. Remain in one's office until an official "all-clear" was issued. The NYPD explained that would likely come "Monday morning."
The NYPD also mentioned that if the first option was selected the "U.N. would provide any transportation home needed by the workers."
Since the U.N. is considered international territory, the NYPD ceded ultimate decision-making to the world body's security service.
I can see why the U.N. security service might've been inclined to opt for Door #1. Despite the inconvenience and awkwardness of submitting to compulsory showering and walking home in a spacesuit, it probably seemed less intrusive than forcing everyone to stay in their offices for 3 days.
But leave it to the U.N. to find a loophole. One which endangered diplomats, civilians, and friendly tourists alike, but - in their defense - was expedient. They went with Door #2, the "all-clear" option. But rather than wait for Monday, they simply redefined the term.
When faced with the prospect of paying transportation costs home for the effected workers, U.N. security issued its own "all-clear" to the astonishment of the NYPD hazmat officers.
So, while the chances were slim that the mystery substance was toxic, the U.N. nonetheless decided to release numerous "exposed" workers into the NYC environment.
But, the U.N. did ask for names and telephone numbers of those refusing decontamination, "just in case" explained one security officer.
Oh, well, thank Heavens. For a minute there, this all sounded pretty irresponsible.
From failing to secure "hot zones" within the building to withholding or providing flawed information to emergency services personnel, the U.N. security service comes off, as Debbie Stabenow might say, as dangerously incompetent.
To its east midtown neighbors (myself included), the U.N. is generally a mild inconvenience, occasionally snarling traffic, offering noisy protests, blocking river views, and preventing anyone without diplomatic tags from ever finding street parking. But once they start deliberately sending out possibly contaminated people onto the streets, against the advice of local law enforcement, it rises to the level of genuine menace.
While they seem to have been much more on the ball, I'll offer one bit of Monday morning quarterbacking for the NYPD.
If they had set up a little receiving area a few feet away from every exit (each squarely planted on American soil), would they have been within their bounds to detain each departing individual and subject them to decontamination? It would've spelled a much larger inconvenience than decontaminating just those coming from the hot zone, but as the U.N. couldn't even keep track of what that zone encompassed or who was entering or exiting it, the only way to thoroughly prevent a spreading contamination would be to process everyone leaving the building.
Further, assuming this would've been feasible and within the NYPD's jurisdiction, might the threat of that more invasive solution been enough to convince the U.N. security service to submit to one of the two prescribed options?
In the end, we're all very lucky the substance was harmless, but we ought to take full advantage of the lesson learned. As is so often the case, the U.N. is proving to be not only an ineffective partner, but an increasing nuisance, hazard, and threat to our interests.
Handcrafted by Flip on December 18, 2006 |
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