By Joshua Benton
SALT LAKE CITY – Mark Burton rents armored vehicles. His business depends on people feeling insecure.
But at these Olympics, he’s finding most people don’t need a bulletproof windshield to feel safe.
“We had a lot of tire-kickers asking about them early on, but I think with all the security for the Games, people are thinking they might not need them after all,” said Burton, CEO of International Armoring in Ogden.
Security for these Games is a very visible $310 million project, from the National Guard troops with M16s to the endless parade of metal detectors across downtown. And while only time will tell if they’re successful at preventing an attack, the precautions do seem to have succeeded in their secondary goal: making people feel safe.
“I feel as safe here as I do at home,” said Charles Coughlin, a consultant from Boston. “It’s like there’s a mini-Army here to protect us.”
The sheer number of security personnel – more than 4,500 military troops and police from 59 local, state and federal agencies – could be enough to discourage any would-be troublemaker. In contrast, there are about 2,300 athletes at the Games.
Compared to the last Winter Olympics in the United States – 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y., which used only about 1,000 security personnel – it’s quite a buildup.
Signs of extra security downtown are obvious. Just try to mail a letter or throw something away. All of the public mail boxes and most of the trash cans have been removed to give terrorists two fewer places to stow a bomb. Manhole covers are welded shut throughout the Olympic area.
Official Olympic sites are surrounded by high fences and guarded. Even non-Olympic sites downtown, such as the Mormon temple and government buildings, are sending visitors through the familiar gates of a metal detector.
The Guard troops are the most obvious sign of the increased federal involvement in these Games, but there are many less visible signs. For instance, there’s a round-the-clock direct video hookup between the Games’ security command center and FBI offices in Washington to allow for constant monitoring of events in Salt Lake.
And when a suspicious package was discovered in a downtown parking garage Thursday, the Black Hawk military helicopters suddenly hovering overhead were evidence that officials plan to take no threat lightly. (The package, a bag packed with wires and flares, was determined to be a hoax and was exploded by officials.)
Officials say they’ve made Salt Lake City as safe as it reasonably can be. “We may not eliminate risk entirely, because there is no such thing as an absolute fail-safe guarantee in Salt Lake City or anywhere else,” U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Thursday.
The larger-than-normal federal role comes along with the Games’ status as a national security event, a designation usually reserved for papal visits and political conventions. The federal government is expected to pick up about $250 million of the security bill.
The Games have been used as a platform for terrorists before – the Israeli athlete murders at Munich in 1972, the Centennial Park bombing at the Atlanta Games in 1996 – and officials are hoping the Utah games won’t fall victim to the same problems.
CIA Director George Tenet told a Senate committee Wednesday that an attack on the Games would fit al-Qaeda’s “interest in striking another blow within the United States that would command worldwide media attention.”
Passengers flying into Salt Lake City are being required to stay in their seats for the last half hour of their flights in order to prevent a Sept. 11-style cockpit assault. At midnight Thursday night, a new 90-mile-wide no-fly zone went into effect around the city.
Flights into and out of the city’s airport are being canceled altogether during Friday night’s opening ceremony. Those who bought $885 tickets to attend the ceremony were asked to arrive at parking lots four hours before Friday night’s celebration.
Burton’s company normally sells its armored vehicles instead of renting them. He sells relatively few within the United States; more common customers are businessmen fearing urban violence in places such as Mexico or Brazil.
But for the Games, he decided to rent out two vehicles: a 1998 Chevy Suburban for $750 a day and a 2000 Ford Crown Victoria for $600. (The Crown Vic has what Burton calls “head-of-state-level” armoring, designed to stop even high-caliber bullets.)
But despite some early interest, he said he was surprised that more people weren’t interested in renting. After several weeks of waiting, he’s found two business executives to rent them, but he’s still not sure if the vehicles will be rented for the entire length of the Games.
The show of security at the Olympics is what has made people feel safer, he said. He’s also a volunteer at the Olympic Village. “I’ve never been patted down so many times in my life,” he said, “and I spend a lot of time in places like Venezuela, Israel, Ecuador. I think it’s fantastic.”
The flurry of frisking and metal detecting could sour the peace-and-goodwill spirit of the Games for some. But most visitors seem to be willing to take the extra scrutiny in stride.
“Sure, there’s a risk,” said Janie Tomasson, a teacher from Sweden. “But you can’t live life being too cautious all the time.”