- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

SAN ANTONIO Folks here were stunned not only by the horror in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania last September 11, but by the arrest within hours of a local Saudi-born doctor who authorities hinted might have been involved in the terrorist scourge.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God.' People right here were part of that inhuman attack," said retired salesman George Dwight. "I just wandered around for hours didn't want to go home."
Scores of San Antonio residents told The Washington Times they experienced the same emotions: disbelief, fear, revulsion, anger.
"We all needed leadership, someone to believe in," said Gerald Anderson, who said he almost immediately met with three of his closest friends "just to pull a little bit of sensibility together."
San Antonio, the nation's eighth-most-populous city (1.15 million) and one of its most diverse, suffered the same pangs that most other large American cities suffered from the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. But today, almost four months later, many say the city has come out stronger, more organized and better prepared to face a changing world.
Thousands still regularly flock to the Alamo or party and dine along the city's famed downtown Riverwalk. Fans continue to pack Spurs basketball games. Even the most gregarious, though, will acknowledge daily life has become a bit more subdued.
"My family still goes most of the places we have always gone to," said a young browser at Half Price Books on Broadway, just north of downtown. "But we certainly pay more attention to everybody and everything around us."
Psychologically, San Antonio seems to have itself in control. Spiritually, leaders and residents say, the city has never been more attuned to the mood and state of the nation. Financially, though, there is a lot of work to be done.
As in many locales, San Antonio's tourism which pulls in more than $3 billion annually has suffered to the point where some predict it will take three years to get back to where it was before September 11.
Airline passengers are fewer. Christmas buying was down and donations to community-aid agencies were less than in recent years. Generally, church attendance has increased and some local auto dealers say they enjoyed heavy December sales volumes, thanks in great part to zero-interest financing deals offered by most U.S. auto manufacturers.
But Joe Krier, director of the local Chamber of Commerce since 1987, said the local economy has not suffered as much as many U.S. cities, partially because of the city's diversity. And unemployment, up nearly a point from last year, still is among the lowest in Texas.
Costs of increased security, overtime for public-service personnel and long-range emergency management planning, equipment and facilities have added many more millions to the city's budget. Just before Christmas, city and county officials named a new homeland-security chief and petitioned the federal government for $66 million to finance a bioterrorism-preparedness plan and an ongoing emergency-operations center.
All in all, residents here appear extremely upbeat about the future. Several spoke of a spirit of togetherness and concern, which many say is a blessing to emerge from the rubble.
"I think it has changed people's personalities," said Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed. "I see people caring more about fellow Americans, talking more. Feeling for them. It certainly increases my zeal for my job."
Mrs. Reed showed another side when the city was dealing with several bomb and anthrax threats in those troubled early days. She organized a task force and promised hoaxers she "was going to nail" them. The fakers stopped calling almost immediately. "Maybe a tough-talking lady D.A. can be a good thing," she said.
Omar Shakir, one of several imams in the city's small Muslim religious community of between 6,000 and 7,000, agrees that good can eventually emerge from the evil. Mr. Shakir says San Antonio has opened its heart to Muslims and others.
"We are Americans, and were just as appalled by this as anyone else," he said. "Folks here seem to understand and respect that."
Mayor Ed Garza, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the district attorney and a handful of religious leaders moved quickly in those stunning initial hours, setting up prayer groups and funneling information through increased media presentations.
"We feel assured," said Valencia Perez, 72, a retired nurse. "At least we know those in charge are working round the clock and keeping us informed."
Residents here were concerned when the Saudi physician, Dr. Al-Badr M.H. Al-Hazmi, was arrested several hours after the attack and taken to an undisclosed location. Initial rumors said the doctor might have been involved with two other men who had been arrested and taken off a train in Fort Worth, heading for San Antonio.
"I just prayed that nothing more was going to happen," said grocer Frank Saena. "For a few hours it all pointed to San Antonio."
"The way they hauled him out of his house, in his pajamas and handcuffs, it seemed like he was a goner," said Freddie Taft, at the Midnight Rodeo, a local honky-tonk. "It looked like a one-way trip to me."
The detention of Dr. Al-Hazmi remained an irritant here. It was days before he was even allowed to speak to a lawyer. He was driven to a New Braunfels jail for two nights, then flown to New York for questioning.
About two weeks later, Dr. Al-Hazmi was released cleared of any terrorist connections and he returned to San Antonio. He immediately became a soft-spoken local hero who told people he knew the U.S. government had to move speedily in the hours after the attacks.
"At times, I questioned why this had happened to me," he said, "but then I would think about all those who died in the September 11 attacks.
"My pain was nothing [in comparison]. That is one of the reasons that kept me strong," he added. When a Texas congressman suggested he should demand an apology from the FBI, he declined, saying, "This is not a time for finger-pointing."
Robert Rivard, the editor of the San Antonio Express-News, said that if he ever doubted that life had changed here, he was shocked into reality when he drove by Fort Sam Houston, one of San Antonio's four military bases, a few days ago. That base was closed to the public two hours after the September 11 attacks.
"A piece of historic San Antonio, suddenly off-limits," Mr. Rivard said.
The Rev. Buckner Fanning, 75, arguably the city's best-known minister, said the terrorism reminded him of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and to a lesser extent, the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
A longtime pastor at Trinity Baptist church here and a well-known evangelist for a decade before that, Mr. Fanning said his church sponsored a prayer session within two hours of the attacks.
"People needed a place to pray," he said, "and there were hundreds there, from many different faiths." Since then he has worked closely with ecumenical and political leaders.
It was an earlier tragedy, Mr. Fanning recalled recently, that led him from being a "lukewarm Christian" to a prominent preacher. Soon after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945, Mr. Fanning, then a teen-aged U.S. Marine rifleman, was stationed at Nagasaki. He began attending a Methodist church there, among hundreds who had lived through the devastation.
Mr. Shakir, the Muslim leader who works as a chaplain for those of his faith in 24 Texas prison units in southwest Texas, said he felt the fact that 70 percent of the residents here are Hispanic and that citywide events such as Cinco de Mayo are huge celebratory occasions, might be responsible for its "understanding" in recent weeks.
"People here are aware that there is some cultural diversity," he said, "and that we should accept one another and celebrate each other's differences."
Amid such positivity, there are tough questions. Mr. Rivard, the editor, wonders aloud just how safe any community can be made. "One problem for all these cities," said Mr. Rivard, "is implementing homeland security. It's a multimillion-dollar proposition, and nobody has the money to do it.
"If you really want to safeguard your water supply or the electrical utilities beyond vandalism or petty criminals, you're talking about round-the-clock security systems and human security as well. And I don't think the American taxpayer is yet willing to pay that cost.
"How do you protect the Alamo?" he asks. "This is a potent historical symbol, but it also is right in the middle of a very busy downtown."
Since World War II, the San Antonio economy has evolved dramatically from one that depended almost entirely on the military to a more diverse one. From the 1940s through the 1960s, the federal government was San Antonio's top employer, with five large military installations.
In the early 1970s, tourism began to take off. Suddenly, where not a single hotel had been built downtown in more than 40 years, a mini-boom occurred. About the same time the city got a major university, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and its burgeoning Health Science Center.
And slowly, San Antonio changed.
"Our No. 1 industry today is medical/biomedical," Mr. Krier said. The second-most-important economic factor remains the military, even after the closing of Kelly Air Force Base a few years ago. Mr. Krier said many felt the process that closed Kelly in 1995 "was not as fair or as nonpolitical as it should have been."
Mr. Garza, noting that Congress passed a $343 billion defense bill that calls for a military-base-closure study in 2005, last month named a task force to lobby politicians in an effort to retain the four military bases still here.
"We need to get our story out there as quickly as possible," he said.


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