As Chicagoans pull together the causes and lessons of this weekend's nightclub stampede, the incident also highlights a broader point that reaches far beyond this city's gritty south side, especially during a time of national alert about terrorism.
The point, observers say, is that a community's ability to respond to big emergencies - including terrorist attacks - depends hugely on the vigilance of individual business owners and how much emphasis they put on their patrons' safety.
Consider that Mayor Richard Daley's administration in Chicago has spent millions on homeland security and, of course, on the city's police, fire, and medical crews. Yet by the time emergency teams arrived at the second-floor E2 nightclub early Sunday, 21 people had been killed and 57 injured because guards apparently used pepper spray to try to break up a fight - which reportedly elicited shouts of "poison gas" and fear of a terrorist attack. That, in turn, may have sparked the stampede toward exits, some of which, the commissioner of Chicago's fire department says, had been locked or barricaded.
Early reports suggest the club owners were partially at fault. As the investigation continues, the city is preparing to sue the club, pointing to building-code violations and a July court order demanding the owners shut down their second floor. An attorney for the club insists his client made a deal to keep E2 open.
But on a broader level, this tragedy hints at the challenges facing security personnel at public venues. The federal government is spending billions on homeland security. Yet one federal study found that 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure - from power plants to shopping malls - is owned by private companies. With the government warning recently that "soft targets," such as malls and apartment buildings, could be attacked, it's clear that Americans' safety and security in the war on terror will depend largely on the private sector.
"These are the most attractive and likely targets," says Stephen Flynn, a national-security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "But the reality is that these sectors aren't doing much." Instead, he says, "They're waiting for the federal government to push money out" so they can upgrade security - yet federal assistance is unlikely.
Indeed, many companies see security as the government's responsibility, not theirs. Certainly some businesses have responded to the new security environment. Many malls have installed new security cameras - or even set up police substations. And with the orange-level terrorism alerts, some hotels and other businesses are, for instance, only accepting prescheduled deliveries.
But many companies aren't doing much. There appear to be two basic reasons. First, many owners simply don't think an attack could happen to them. Second, their stakeholders - from customers to insurers to regulators - aren't demanding beefed-up security. Thus expensive improvements aren't necessary - and only hurt the bottom line.
Indeed, in Chicago, most nightclub owners - who are under new scrutiny this week - say their security is sufficient.
"There's not much more you can do," says Phil Doerries, manager of Vision, the city's largest dance club. "You have your exits, you keep to capacity or less, we have surveillance cameras on every level, sprinkler systems, and all personnel, from the front door to the kitchen, have walkie-talkies," he says. "We have lots of security people, up to 14 on a busy night." Many club staffers in the city say the use of pepper spray at E2 was unacceptable - and unusual.
Yet some patrons are skeptical about the overall club scene. "Some clubs are very vulnerable - crowded, hard to get out of," says Alan Goldsher, a local bass player and author. "Combine that with a lot of alcohol and a late night - and people aren't at their most lucid," he says. "A stage is at the far end of a room and the farthest point from the door.... If all of a sudden pepper spray's flying or there's a fire, you just want to get the heck out of there."
But in general, while Europe and Israel have seen a number of club or disco bombings over the years, many in Chicago feel removed from any real threat. "In New York I felt more vulnerable," says Mr. Goldsher. "I think it's less likely there'll be suicide bombers here."
Many terrorism experts warn that such sentiments may be naive. "What we know about Al Qaeda," says Mr. Flynn, "is that they'll gravitate toward the weakest points."
And ultimately, because of economic pressures, private-sector weaknesses aren't likely to be addressed, Flynn says, until customers, insurance companies, and government regulators start demanding better security.
Dec. 28, 1991, New York: Eight people suffocated in pileup trying to get into the City College of New York gymnasium for a charity basketball game played by rappers.
Jan. 18, 1991, Salt Lake City: Three teenagers killed when the crowd at an AC-DC concert rushed the stage.
Dec. 19, 1987, Nashville, Tenn.: Two teenagers killed in a crush of people leaving a Public Enemy concert.
Dec. 3, 1979, Cincinnati: Eleven people killed in a crush to enter a concert by The Who.