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Tucsonans are split on whether the United States is safer since Sept. 11

A totally unscientific survey of locals reveals an almost even split between those who believe United States' security has improved since Sept. 11, 2001, those who think it has gotten worse, and those who haven't perceived any change.

Of 52 people interviewed at four locations around town, 19 went with better security, 17 with less and 15 with the same. One young man said he didn't know how to answer the question.

At noontime on a hot, muggy, late-August day, several people sought shady spots to eat their lunch outside the University of Arizona's main library. One of them, Stephen Thomson, observed succinctly of U.S. security: "Sept. 11 put us into gear."

Sitting nearby, Edward Cherry, who is almost twice Thomson's age, had a different viewpoint. "We focus on everybody else," he said. "Instead, we should focus first on society's fears and the negligence of families, then worry about other problems."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security was created to bring together many of the disparate governmental agencies that work on the issue. With a proposed budget of more than $41 billion during the coming fiscal year, the department continues to use its color-coded "Threat Advisory" system. The meter was at yellow last week, meaning the federal government believes there is a significant risk of terrorist attacks in the United States.

Despite that, among a steady stream of patrons recently at the eastside Wilmot Library, half of those interviewed thought the country was now more secure. "The airports are so much safer, even if they are a hassle," declared Andreina Diaz, while Victor Ramirez added, "Our national security was upgraded due to Sept. 11."

"The government has done a lot," agreed Karen Ray. But, she added, "I don't feel safer."

To help improve national security, in October 2001, Congress passed the controversial USA PATRIOT Act. In addition to addressing terrorism, it enhanced law-enforcement surveillance procedures, tried to increase information sharing among agencies and purported to improve international border protection.

Illegal immigration, though, was a concern for some of the survey participants at the Mission library on Tucson's southwest side. The war in Iraq, which has taken thousands of lives and cost hundreds of billions of dollars, was also mentioned, resulting in half of the total respondents at the library thinking the country is less secure now.

"We never should have gotten into the war in the first place," stressed one senior citizen who wished to remain anonymous. Added another woman: "We're just pissing off the terrorists."

While a cheerleading squad practiced in nearby Kennedy Park, Bettie Clark was entering the library on a cloudless Saturday morning. The reason she believed the country was less secure now was simple: "Because of the immigration problem."

Other library patrons thought differently. "It's been four years since Sept. 11," pointed out Barry Coe, "and there hasn't been a problem." Based on that, he concluded the country was more secure.

At the same time, some of those using the library looked at the security issue more locally. "The crime rate is higher," said Edwin, who didn't want his last name used. "I don't trust the government anymore on neighborhood or airport security (issues)."

Diana Becza complained: "Too many people are doing bad things, like stealing cars, on this side of town. We need more police."

While some additional federal funds have been supplied to local law enforcement agencies since Sept. 11, that money is used primarily for training and equipment (See "Just in Case," Sept. 9, 2004). Concurrently, passenger screening at airports has become an unpleasant experience for many travelers.

"All the tightened airport security is a farce," commented one woman coming out of the Woods Memorial library on North First Avenue. A few minutes later, on a hot summer afternoon, a teenager leaving the library said: "We're not doing as good a job as we did before."

The war in Iraq and border security were also issues for some of those interviewed at the Woods library. "I don't believe what we're doing in Iraq is solving anything," offered Tom Marshall as he and his young son returned a sack full of books.

But others using the library thought that what was being done was working to improve national security. "It's harder to do anything now," suggested Javier Rodriguez, who changed his mind about the country being less secure to being more so. Added Monica Coronado: "We're working more on border issues."

Gender had no impact on the answers, but age certainly did. Only two of the 10 people interviewed who appeared to be more than 50 years old believed the nation was more secure now, while half the respondents appearing less than 30 thought so.

Summarizing the former viewpoint, an anonymous 70-year-old said: "Our government is going after the wrong things."

At the UA, a youthful German, Frank Feuerbach, who has only been in the country for two weeks, looked at the issue from the other end of the spectrum. "You've pushed a lot of money on defense," he concluded of the United States in the post-Sept. 11 era.

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