Magazine article Commonweal

OUR TOWN : Terrorism with a Library Card

Magazine article Commonweal

OUR TOWN : Terrorism with a Library Card

Article excerpt

Delray Beach, Florida, is a town with a population of about fifty-five thousand in southern Palm Beach County, midway between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. It hums pleasantly with a sense of civic purpose, having just been designated an "All-American City" for the second time in ten years. Its main street, Atlantic Avenue, runs straight to the ocean, and its eastern ten-or-so blocks have become a flourishing downtown, a model for surrounding communities that have come to realize the value of an identifiable center. Gertrude Stein would not say of Delray Beach, as she might of some towns nearby, that "there is no there there."

The same spirit of purposeful optimism that revitalized East Atlantic Avenue seems now to have focused effectively on plans to do the same for West Atlantic, which stretches from Swinton Avenue to Interstate 95, through an African American neighborhood with deep historical roots. I have a stake in this as president of the board of our public library, which hopes to erect a new building at the eastern end of this corridor. It will replace a beloved but now seriously overtaxed structure east of Swinton. This older building recently became a footnote to the events of September 11 and a minor tourist attraction, with implications that are as yet unclear.

The reference librarian at the library, a tall, friendly woman who had moved here recently from Michigan, found herself briefly in the news and under the close attention of the FBI. As computers have established themselves in libraries across the country, people in her position have become self-educated techies, simply because they are the nearest ones to ask how to get online and access e-mail. When demand is high (and that is most of the time) they maintain sign-up lists and ration usage. This is what she was doing one evening in July when two young men confronted her--not belligerently but with an awkward silence that forced her to ask whether they wanted to sign up for one of the computers, all of which were in use.

They did so, with a name not their own but not made up either, as it turned out. She recognized their conversation with one another as Arabic because she had once lived near the largest concentration of Arabic speakers in the United States, in Dearborn, Michigan. When they were both seated at one computer she remarked to a coworker that she had not heard Arabic since arriving in Delray Beach. Whenever she looked over at them, one of them looked steadily back at her, apparently concerned that she might be suspicious of what they were doing. But his gaze was not nervous or furtive but controlling, establishing a zone that she was not to enter.

Within an hour or so a third man, apparently older, joined them, spoke to them in Arabic and then approached her desk and sat down at a table that faced her directly. …

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