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Security and Psychic Powers - 3 January 2003

"As crowds watch the ball drop the police will watch the crowds" was the spooky headline on the city section of the New Year's Eve newspaper.

The ball is the ball of light - a huge, pure, crystal ball that falls from the tower of the New York Times building - in, naturally, Times Square - on the stroke of midnight every 31 December.

It's a custom that started just on 90 years ago when an illuminated ball fell from the top of the tallest building in the world, which in those days was the creation of one Frank Woolworth - a rags to riches story that is worth retelling some day.

Today I don't suppose one tourist in a thousand visits the Woolworth building or knows where it is - at 233 Broadway, between Berkeley Street and Park Place.

A million people were expected to pack Times Square, in spite of the enforced gymnastics of what is officially called "heightened security" - the personal body scanning of everybody entering, no weapons, sticks, no bottles, no tins, no liquor of course allowed.

Mayor Bloomberg gave a press conference in the middle of Times Square itself on Tuesday afternoon to apologise for the mass screening and searching that would have to go on, which, whether we like it or not, he said, is essential today - we live in dangerous times.

He had no sooner said that there are no credible threats to our security here when the word came in from Washington, from the new Department of Homeland Security, that there was credible evidence of a possible terrorist attack on New York harbour, which pretty soon had the mayor back at City Hall directing an elaborate plan that began with the Coastguard closing the entire port of New York to pleasure craft or any other ships not officially licensed or cleared by the Navy.

Still, as you can imagine, several thousand intending Times Square joy makers stayed home.

But many more thousands - the police department said 800,000 - did show up, packed in, made the usual noises, left five tons of confetti and scattered in good order.

Early New Year's morning is nowadays a time for mayors and the governors of states to call each other and get a thankful word that their famous stadium or bridge or reservoir or whatever is intact. Security, security.

To think that I was alive and full grown - 6 ft 1 - when the word security had no other meaning than, as the Oxford Dictionary says, "a thing deposited or pledged as a guarantee of payment of a loan, to be forfeited in case of failure".

I have read one or two foreign comments on this high-tension national anxiety as a form of mass hysteria, that could only be written by people who have had nothing like an 11 September or who have forgotten the New Year's Day on which the FBI successfully thwarted the millennium plot to blow up the Los Angeles airport.

The FBI obviously does not make a habit of reporting the thousands of alarms and threats it investigates.

Obviously these mustn't be reported. One good reason - they would give startling and ingenious ideas to people who don't wish us well.

But if the dreadful record could be known I'm sure we'd have less full-throated protests about the violation of the Constitution from people who object to the tiresome and elaborate invasions of privacy which the new homeland security department has had to invent and practise.

This is the time of the year when every journalist and pundit is expected to set out for general admiration his list of prophesies for the coming year.

I must say, so far the prophets have been remarkably, uniquely, modest or unforthcoming, perhaps after the year's terrorist atrocities in the most unpredictable places.

Maybe no-one is prepared to commit himself/herself. It just struck me as odd - I don't know of any female pundits.

Before the Second War France had a famous couple, the United States had Anne O'Hare McCormick and the redoubtable Dorothy Thompson.

In retrospect I have to admit that she was astonishingly clairvoyant in forecasting the next step Hitler would take and the next and the one after that.

But now in the past week a young, 30-year-old Chinese immigrant, one Chung-Chen Lin, has not only discovered a woman prophet but with the assistance of the district attorney has brought her to court and had her charged with grand larceny for failing to deliver.

What? Her psychic powers.

Ye Lu is a 50-year-old lady who has for years told fortunes, predicted all sorts of events at her station in a storefront in a city suburb.

According to the local folk wisdom she has not only predicted births and marriages, better jobs and such, but she has published advertisements proclaiming her power to cure afflictions as serious as cancer and high blood pressure.

She must have been successful by her own lights and the gossip of the neighbourhood, but one thing she apparently did not foresee was the day when an envious admirer - such as Mr Chung - would come forward and ask in all innocence if it would be possible to acquire by purchase her remarkable psychic powers.

Evidently she must have said: "'Tis so."

"For how much?"

"Eight thousands dollars."

A lot of money for the young Mr Chung but he paid it and he waited patiently for the powers to overcome him, like I imagine falling in love or a strong dose of heroin.

Well he waited for a year and was no more psychic than you or I.

At the end of that patient period Mr Chung had a psychic insight of his own.

He made the discovery, which I'll bet is news to most New Yorkers, that in New York state, fortune-telling is a crime.

A fortune-teller is defined as anyone who claims to tell fortunes, to have occult powers.

However, the law does not apply to fortune tellers who do it as an entertaining act.

Well Miss Lu claims to be for real.

The next step was the really wonderful sentence in the charge: "The district attorney's office started an investigation into Mr Chung's lack of psychic powers."

And at the end of it, satisfied that Mr Chung was just as non-psychic as the day he was born, Miss Lu was arrested and held on a charge of grand larceny - defined as "an act of thievery", being paid for promised goods and failing to deliver them.

She could, the statute says, be sentenced to seven years in jail. I think it unlikely.

Sometime between now and her coming arraignment in court surely somebody will advise her to say that her act had been an entertainment, that she'd been kidding all along but she's sorry that she slipped over to the boast of being able to pass on her occult powers. I'll keep you posted.

As for the silence of the professional prophets - the newspaper and television pundits, the commentators - the best, last word was written long ago by one of the ablest, certainly the wittiest practitioner in the trade, one Westbrook Pegler, an American columnist who could dribble the language as artfully as anybody since Mark Twain.

He once wrote a New Year's piece entitled "Myriad Minded Us" - about the newspaper columnists such as himself.

"The deep-thinking, hair-trigger commentator who knows all the answers offhand and can settle great affairs with absolute finality three days a week."

Dig deep into the life and mind of these pundits and what do we find?

"Experts on the budget who can't balance an expense account. Economic experts who can't find the 5.15 on a suburban timetable. Pundits on the mechanical age who can't put a fresh ribbon in their typewriters and resounding authorities on the problems of the farmer, who never grew a geranium in a pot."

Ain't it the truth.

So what has yours truly, the pundit in residence, to say about, for instance, Iraq and/or North Korea - about both of which quite a few of my correspondents seem to have very hot and heavy positive opinions about what should not be done?

Well I am not an ideologue or a partisan, I'd better confess - I am and have been for 70 years a reporter.

I am at the present drunk on gallons of relevant information about these topics and I honestly have no idea what should be done in either crisis.

Most European commentators seem to believe in sitting back and hoping for the best, as we've been doing with Saddam for 12 years.

Or - having paid a massive bribe to North Korea eight years ago - now that they've come back for more, better go on paying the blackmail.

If you have any solution to either puzzle write at once to President Bush, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC - he'll be enormously grateful to all of you who know the solutions.

In the meantime may an old and baffled reporter simply wish you a painless and a bearable, even a contented New Year.


Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.