War worries could have long-term consequences

Tension triggered an unusual police response to a cut lock, and could affect the economy and Minnesotans’ quality of life.

Dylan Thomas

With the first military strikes on Iraq last week, worry and anxiety about diplomacy and the timing of war gave way to concerns regarding the war’s length and its potential repercussions.

The anxiety surrounding war might have far-reaching effects, from homeland security to the economy or the quality of Minnesotans’ daily lives.

Even before bombs started dropping in Iraq, heightened tensions around the war turned a routine break-in response by the Minneapolis police into a brief security scare.

The Third Avenue and Stone Arch bridges were closed for several hours after a break-in to the tunnels below Xcel Energy’s hydroelectric plant – located on Hennepin Island near the St. Anthony Main area – provoked a response from the police and the FBI.

Minneapolis Chief of Police Robert Olson said the tunnels – once used for grain transport in the old milling district – are often broken into by homeless people looking for shelter, but the war atmosphere led police to take extra precautions.

The University’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory shares Hennepin Island with the hydroelectric plant, and workers there, who are accustomed to the tunnel break-ins were surprised at the response to a cut lock, said Karen Campbell, an associate program director at the lab.

Campbell said some media had speculated Wednesday that their lab could be a terrorist target. Security has been beefed up on campus for labs where work is done with chemicals and other dangerous substances. However, the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory’s studies are focused on fluid dynamics, and there is nothing there that could be used for terrorism, Campbell said.

“What a lot of us talked about was that it made us aware of how it must be to be in countries where this kind of thing is a regular occurrence,” Campbell said.

Extra security precautions might sometimes turn out to be unnecessary, as they did Wednesday. But as the war persists, heightened awareness of terrorism risks will continue.

Although there is no specific threat to Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered National Guard troops to protect several sensitive sites around the state, including Xcel’s nuclear power plant on Prairie Island. Minnesota’s Emergency Operations Center, established to respond to natural disasters, will now coordinate responses to terrorism as well.

On campus, University Police Chief George Aylward said officers are taking extra precautions, though they have no reason to believe the University will be a target for war-related terrorism.

Monthly briefings that bring together metro-area police, FBI, Secret Service and other organizations have stressed infrastructure – such as bridges or electricity lines – and large gatherings of people as possible targets. As a result, officers are working more nighttime hours, when this type of terrorist activity would most likely take place, Aylward said.

“The possibilities here are not high” for terrorism, Aylward said. But he added that some other group “with an axe to grind” might take the opportunity to act.

Aylward said they have heard some concerns from community members – wondering if it is safe to travel, for example – but are trying to keep any extra precautions “low-key,” so as not to raise alarm.

“We’ll have to wait until Monday when the students come back to see what the atmosphere is,” Aylward said.

Anxiety and uncertainty

War jitters affect not only those charged with security, but also in other institutions.

While the stock market was a little shaky in the weeks before the war, the diplomatic breakdown might have played a part in the eight straight days of gains that lasted through Friday.

Edward Foster, a University economics professor, said the stock market’s behavior in recent weeks could be explained by the uncertainty in the days before war. Because the stock market doesn’t respond well to uncertainty, some analysts said when it became apparent war was coming – whether ultimately good or bad for the economy – investors knew how to respond.

“The general impact of uncertainty on the economy, not the stock market necessarily, is that it causes people to hold off on decisions,” Foster said.

Foster said anecdotal evidence from business owners who are waiting for the end of the war to hire or buy new equipment, or consumers who are reluctant to make big purchases, is evidence of the uncertainty effect.

“A natural reaction, if you’re uncertain about what’s going to happen, is to say, ‘Well, let’s just wait a while,’ ” Foster said.

He said the idea that war is good for the economy is simply myth. The economic boom around World War II was fostered by multiple factors, such as more women joining the labor force.

On a more personal level, individuals who waited for war to begin, and are now watching constant coverage on television, might feel more anxiety in their lives.

Thomas Mackenzie, a University psychiatry professor, said psychiatry does not give any clear-cut answers for how the expectation of war, or the uncertainty surrounding its timing or results, affects people. In reality, each person reacts differently to the fear or anxiety that some feel during times of war.

“As a species we like certainty,” Mackenzie said. Uncertainty might activate stress systems that can have both physical and psychological effects.

Mackenzie said the increased possibility of terrorist reprisals within the United States – a somewhat new idea for Americans – can increase anxiety.

Mark Janavaras, a manager at General J’s Military Surplus in Minneapolis, said he still gets people coming in looking for gas masks, chemical suits and other antiterrorism supplies, but the numbers are down since the war started. Still, six to 10 people per day come in to make war preparations, he said.

Mackenzie had some common-sense recommendations for how to deal with the war.

“Don’t put your life on hold. Slow the pace down, don’t sort of accelerate, that’s not going to help. And modulate your engagement with the news, in terms of what you can tolerate,” Mackenzie said.

“It’s okay to be frightened and sad,” he said.

“Aren’t those human responses to acts of violence when they happen around us? And there are acts of violence happening in the world.”

Dylan Thomas welcomes comments at [email protected]