PORTLAND, ORE. — I'm glad my city appears to have survived the political storm that blew through the area during the past few weeks. Things were getting pretty windy as commentators around the country unleashed a hurricane of criticism about our alleged lack of cooperation with the FBI's fight against terrorism. We were even accused of creating a favorable climate for America's enemies. Contrary to what you may have heard, we were not standing at the state line, handing out free Birkenstocks and fly-fishing rods to incoming busloads of Al Qaeda agents.
As often happens in wartime, a lack of accurate information sparks an explosion of rumors. Here are the basic facts: (1) When Attorney General John Ashcroft asked for nationwide help in questioning thousands of noncitizens, mostly from the Middle East, the Portland city attorney looked at the request and decided some of the questions were not compatible with Oregon laws. (2) Before any city leaders could devise a solution, a New York Times reporter talked to an assistant police chief and got a quote saying the department would not participate in the interviews.
As the old saying goes, you can't unring a bell. Once the story went out, it started alarm bells ringing in newsrooms everywhere. By the time any of us here knew something was wrong, we were being bracketed by incoming media artillery rounds, and most of it wasn't friendly fire. The situation quickly turned into every public official's worst nightmare: massive uproar about a policy that didn't officially exist yet.
The allegations seemed to get more inclusive with each new headline. "Portland Police Won't Cooperate with FBI!" can be made snappier by saying "Portland Rebuffs Ashcroft!" which easily morphs into "Oregon Blocks Antiterror Effort!" On talk shows, we were quickly tossed into the "you people" category, right next to "you people in Florida who can't make the voting machines work properly" and "you people in Berkeley who wouldn't let the city fire trucks fly American flags."
By far the worst allegation was that Oregon was becoming a haven for terrorists. For anyone who wants to stretch reality that far, I can offer the compelling but equally absurd counterargument that our actions were actually part of a secret plan to lure the evildoers here so they would become depressed by all the rain and commit physician-assisted suicide.
There are about 200 people in Oregon on the list for questioning, and news reports here say the process is under way. During the whole controversy, there has never been any backbiting among the law-enforcement organizations. The Portland police, the FBI, the INS, and the US attorney have all stressed their respect for one another, even as the paintbrush of public indignation was coating the state with fresh layers of derision.
I'm not a meteorologist, but I do know what happens when an atmosphere of national tension combines with high pressure on government agencies while clouds of suspicion start obscuring important facts. It creates the perfect climate for jumping to all the wrong conclusions.