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— Downstairs, just beyond the toll booth, stand three soldiers in black berets and camouflage fatigues. One has his assault rifle slung on his shoulder, a new edition of the M-16 I carried. The other two stand with weapons at the ready, hands on the grips, fingers near the triggers. Their black guns will fire the 20-round magazine in under two seconds, making toys of even the 9mm automatic handguns the police carry. I can't imagine what such firepower would sound like in a confined concrete space like this or the damage it would do to anyone in the way of the shots or ricochets off the stone and tiles. What training could they possibly have had in subway shootouts? None, I'm sure. But the station, the target of a foiled bomb plot several years back, is the hub for six different subway lines and a terminus for a Long Island Railroad branch. So it's strategic and heavily trafficked. Like my destination.

I board the W express for the 15-minute, two-stop run to Union Square. Its route takes us across the East River on the Manhattan Bridge. As we roll outside into daylight, the financial district's skyline comes into view. Immediately south, parallel to us, is the majestic Brooklyn Bridge. An iconic target by all accounts. The police are checking cars and vans. On a raised walkway running down its middle, pedestrians stride along, sharing the elevated boardwalk with cyclists.

In the subway car cell phones pop open and antennas are pulled out like cotter pins. Quick calls are squeezed in before the train dives back underground on the far side. The express stops at Canal Street in Chinatown. A slash of graffiti reads "MAKE FUCK NOT KILL."

The train pulls out and speeds uptown on a straight line for 14th Street. A few weeks ago an art student placed black boxes labeled FEAR throughout the station as part of a public art project. The police went into full defensive mode. That day my train, instead of stopping, sped right through the deserted station without warning. When I trekked back to 14th Street and Broadway, the square above the station was flooded with patrol cars, bomb-squad vans, bomb-sniffing dogs, and a small army of uniformed police and detectives.

Even without the errant art, most mornings police abound. With seven subway lines crossing at the station, the police take every precaution. This morning, aboveground, the free-speech tradition of the square has drawn antiwar activists again. Speakers address the crowd from the steps of an equestrian statue of George Washington. At a more creative moment the demonstrators will all "die," falling to the ground in solidarity with civilians dying elsewhere at American hands. MTV interviewers stand over them with mikes, the hoods of their sweatshirts drawn up against the chill rain that's begun. The lights bleach the damp air. "YEE-HAA IS NOT A FOREIGN POLICY" reads one sign. "DRAFT THE TWINS, NOT THE POOR" says another.

This is a major issue on MTV, the inequities of the defunct draft and of the makeup of today's volunteer military. Of the 535 federal legislators in Washington, it seems that only the senator from South Dakota has a son in the service. Shades of Vietnam. Watching the Super Bowl, I laughed out loud at the shameless hypocrisy of the NFL juxtaposing itself with servicemen and women, pilots, planes, rockets, and flags, evidencing their support of our brave boys and girls about to take on Saddam. In ten years of fighting in Indochina, exactly one professional athlete ever carried anything more dangerous than an autographing pen, and he was only there because he had screwed up his reserve status.

The police have cordoned off the youthful demonstrators with aluminum barriers and stand behind them patiently. Nearby a life-sized bronze statue of Gandhi catches him in mid stride. Often, he wears a garland of fresh marigolds. And some days the Mahatma is sandbagged.

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