(AFP) – Dec 6, 2007
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Shopping centers across America have stepped up security to protect shoppers during the busy holiday season in the wake of a deadly shooting in a Nebraska mall that left nine people dead.
While several shopping malls increased patrols after a lone gunman fired an assault rifle into a crowded store in Omaha on Wednesday, industry officials acknowledged that such tragedies are difficult to prevent.
Shopping centers, which are considered by security experts a "soft" target for terrorism, already implemented tighter security measures following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
But American shoppers are reluctant to accept even measures that would force them to go through metal detectors or be frisked by guards to enter their beloved malls, said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
"We hope that we will not get to that point in this country because we live in a free society and respect people's right to travel unimpeded," Kavanagh told AFP.
While Shoppers who were surveyed in focus groups indicated they would rather not have to go through metal detectors, they appeared willing to accept them if the government raised the terror alert level, he said.
Measures installed after September 11 include closer coordination with local police, the use of high-resolution cameras that can read car license plates in parking lots and the inspection of delivery trucks. Some malls even have bomb-sniffing dogs.
The FBI warned just last month of potential Al-Qaeda attacks on US shopping malls during the Christmas season, but conceded that the threats received may not be credible.
"If you look back through the years, this is a tactic and practice of Al-Qaeda to express threats during the Christmas season," FBI special agent Ross Rice said at the time, adding that the information had not been corroborated.
Rice said an FBI bulletin went out to law enforcement agencies to advise them to be vigilant as malls become crowded with holiday shoppers.
But he said he did not think any new security measures would be put in place in response to the threat as most local agencies already increase patrols at malls during this time.
"This time of the year is very busy in and around malls and they focus additional security there," he said.
The Defense Department also has a system in place to support local law enforcement officials in case of a terror attack in a shopping center, said Paul McHale, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for homeland defense.
But McHale, whose position was created to supervise the Pentagon's homeland defense activities, said deploying heavily armed patrols was not the solution.
"We cannot remain the kind of nation that we are, that we want to be, that we intend to be in terms of freedom, if we emphasize security by turning civilian gathering places into armed fortresses," McHale said at a news conference on post 9/11 security on Thursday.
"The better approach is not to try to harden shopping malls, turn them into armed compounds with a securituy presence that is chilling in its very character," he said.
"The better approach is to achieve that kind of defense ... through the lawful collection of information that gives us advance warning that an attack may occur."
But industry officials conceded that random acts of violence, like the Omaha attack in which 19-year-old Robert Hawkins killed eight people before turning the gun on himself, were difficult to prevent.
Omaha's Westroads Mall, as other US shopping centers, had just received 45,000 dollars from the government to improve its security before Wednesday's massacre, said Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.
"These random acts of violence can strike anywhere -- at schools, office buildings, post offices -- anywhere law-abiding citizens are present," Simon Property Group, which owns several US malls, said in a statement.
"Law enforcement and security prevention measures, no matter how good, cannot forestall a tragedy such as this from happening," it said.
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