Austin Hears the Music And Another New Reality
In Texas Cultural Center, People Prepare to Fight Terror
Washington Post | October 26, 2001
By Paul Duggan
AUSTIN -- Until two weeks ago, Capt. Michael Frick of the Austin Fire Department was just your basic hazmat specialist, a shift commander with a unit trained for emergencies involving hazardous materials and vapors -- chemical leaks, oil spills, toxic fumes from ruptured pipes.
"Normal stuff," said Frick, a firefighter for 19 years.
But now, in a sign of the times, Frick has a more exotic job.
"I've been reassigned to the 'weapons of mass destruction task force,' " he said, smiling ruefully at the name he and his colleagues have given to the department's new doomsday planning group.
No public official here worries aloud that Austin is high on Osama bin Laden's hit list. This is not a center of national commerce, military might or political power -- it's the self-styled "live music capital of the world." There have been no fiery attacks, no terrorist cells uncovered, no lethal spores found in the mail. Half a continent away from the focal points of horror -- from the devastation at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the anthrax deaths in Washington and Florida -- Austin is outwardly at peace.
It's the seat of Texas government, a city of college students and state bureaucrats, of clean industry and funky bars, where the rhythms of life, for the most part, have settled back to normal since the East Coast terrorism onslaught of Sept. 11. The jihad isn't here, except on television.
Yet, some things have changed, maybe forever, in this city of 670,000, as they have in other American communities geographically distant from the tragedies of the past six weeks. The long-term impact of terrorism is evident here in myriad ways.
One is Frick's new group, which is officially called the Terrorism Response Task Force. But members are so immersed in disaster discussions -- drafting protocols for handling hundreds of casualties from a terrorist poisoning of the water supply, for example, or a lethal gas attack on Austin -- that the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" has become part of their daily vernacular. Across the nation these days, firefighters do more than fight fires -- they help with "homeland defense" and make "biological threat assessments."
"You know, I was in a class three or four years ago where we talked a lot about weapons of mass destruction," said Frick, 47. "But it was in a classroom -- it was just something we studied. It's strange now to be throwing the term around in our everyday conversations."
So far, the task force has only just begun to imagine catastrophes; the next step will be to figure out strategies for prevention and response. In a press release that reads like a statement from the Defense Department, fire officials described the group's mission as "threat assessment, pre-incident planning, target hardening, intelligence sharing and training."
"That's our new reality," Frick said.
So it is for the Austin Police Department, which recently formed a permanent "homeland defense unit," said spokesman Paul Flaningan. He said 35 officers have been assigned to provide round-the-clock security at electric and water plants, the Austin airport and other "critical facilities."
Acknowledging the Orwellian ring of the unit's name, Flaningan noted, "We're a different organization today than we were before September 11."
New duties often mean cutting back on old commitments. Like many police forces, the Austin department has long adhered to the concept of "community policing," in which neighborhood-based officers become familiar with residents and merchants, mediate disputes and act as mentors to youth in an effort to head off potential crime.
But now that effort is suffering, Flaningan said, as some officers who were assigned to community policing have been transferred to homeland defense.
"It's a new time, and we're going through changes like everyone else," he said. The terrorist attacks "have made us rethink our philosophy of policing and change our priorities."
In Austin's heavily high-tech private sector, entrepreneurs, corporate executives and employees also talk about the future in far different terms than they did before the attacks. A group of them gathered recently at KLRU, the city's public television station, to videotape a discussion on the long-term changes they envision in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
"This event has changed all of us," said Carl Everett, a business consultant and former Dell Computer executive. "And we've got to make change our ally."
Padmasree Warrior, a Motorola vice president, said she anticipates a more productive relationship between technology companies and government in addressing the country's new terrorism-related worries.
"The private sector is very good about forming consortia to share best practices," said Warrior, referring to executives of competing companies here who have long held meetings to exchange ideas. "I wonder if the same kind of model can be extended to the public sector, where government can immediately begin . . . capturing the best and brightest ideas from the private sector, so we can see concrete results."
Charlie Jackson, a communications entrepreneur, said the attacks also should prompt businesses to adopt a new attitude toward prosperity.
"One of the issues we didn't address in our boom times was the fact that even in Austin, where a tremendous amount of wealth was being created, many people were left behind," Jackson said. "And at the same time our economy has been booming in the United States, we've left behind whole parts of the world, and I think that's contributed to this crisis. . . . It's important that we start to look at how we can solve some of these fundamental problems at home and around the world in terms of economic equality."
Not everyone's outlook is so progressive. The events of the past six weeks seem merely to have reinforced the long-held views of a smaller group in Austin -- a subculture of self-described "patriots" who contend that the U.S. government either orchestrated the Pentagon and World Trade Center cataclysms or purposely failed to stop them.
"Oh, my phones have been lit up on this," said Austin-based talk show host Alex Jones. He has been warning of vast, mind-boggling government plots for years on his public-access cable program and on his radio broadcast, syndicated to about 70 mostly low-watt stations across the country.
He and his callers view the Sept. 11 destruction as the latest in a series of government-planned atrocities, including the catastrophic FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing two years later. As they see it, federal authorities aim to incite public panic as pretext for martial law, then subjugate the nation to a single, dictatorial world government.
Jones's oddly entertaining cable show, which runs live for 2 1/2 hours on Thursdays, has made the exuberant, 27-year-old conspiracy theorist a minor celebrity in Austin, a cult favorite named best local TV personality earlier this month in a readers' poll by the Austin Chronicle, a hip alternative weekly.
"I say things that sound extreme, so some people used to go only part of the way with me," Jones said in an interview. "Now, I'm seeing a lot more people really support what I'm doing."
Viewers haven't complained about Jones's Sept. 11 theory, said Marion Nickerson, the public-access channel's programming director. On the contrary, several people have approached him with plans to produce similar shows.
"Someday everyone's going to agree with me," Jones said, chuckling.
In the meantime, life goes on in Austin, far from ground zero.
No one waits in line for an anthrax nasal swab. The downtown lunch crowd chats about work and the weather, not Cipro. The Sixth Street bars are full on weekends.
Yet, so are houses of worship. The Rev. David Smith, director of the Austin Baptist Association, said that although church attendance has fallen off from its dramatic surge on the first Sunday after the attacks, it remains higher than it was before Sept. 11.
"I think people are looking for answers," he said.
Last modified November 1, 2005