At least one website, www.burntheolympics.org, protests that Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Games will morph into a police state. For some people, that’s just fine. Giving up a little freedom is a fair exchange for safety.
Salt Lake City’s Olympics were always going to be a challenge from a security standpoint. With Atlanta and Munich as vivid reminders of how terrorists might use the Games to make a statement, policing had always been a top priority.
All that, of course, was before Sept. 11. To say America is now squeamish is an understatement. Paranoia, it seems, is the mood of the day. Even in normally quiet Salt Lake City, a forgotten backpack can become a bomb scare that closes several downtown blocks for hours as investigators and the bomb squad determine how to handle the probability that it might be real. Nobody is taking any chances—particularly law enforcement.
The proximity of the Games to the new and continued unrest in the Middle East has done nothing to make the situation less tense. Across America, the balancing act of security versus freedom has shifted. Not many are objecting to heightened security measures at airports. Civil libertarians have been keeping low profiles since Sept. 11 as the FBI has swept up 900 suspects and monitored their conversations with attorneys. News organizations—particularly the major TV networks—are bending coverage of Middle East events to comply with requests from the government. These things did not seem possible before the attacks.
As the Feb. 8 opening of the Winter Olympics nears, watch for the tension to continue to grow. The public mood seems against those who would argue that Salt Lake City should be open to organized demonstrations outlined under the First Amendment during the 17 days when Utah is in the international spotlight. Mayor Rocky Anderson, under pressure from the City Council and police department, relented and said no organized demonstrations would be allowed within the secure “Olympic Square” fenced area. Some feared that terrorists would use lawful demonstration to gain access to the hub of activity near the Medals Plaza.
Surprisingly, neither the American Civil Liberties Union nor the Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC) seem to mind. Both organizations that had been pressing City Hall for larger and better “free speech zones” now say that it isn’t critical to be within the “Olympic Square” as long as they can reach their audience by demonstrating nearby.
All’s well that ends well? Not exactly. The city has outlined various “free speech zones” with maximum capacities of five, 10 and 20 people. That may or may not be adequate, depending on how many protesters show up. UARC will continue to press its suit in federal court, seeking permits for which it applied in March designating other areas for protest.
How that will come out is anyone’s guess. But it seems clear the public has a low tolerance for free speech right now. To paraphrase a letter written to one of Salt Lake City’s daily papers that weighed constitutional guarantees against the winter sports gala, why don’t those protesters just shut up and go home. These are our Olympics.