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A DELAY TO BE THANKFUL FOR

You'll have to forgive them if they don't say "Merry Christmas," because the Customs agents along the Niagara River find themselves dealing with somewhat less cheery subjects these days, mainly the threat of millennial terrorism.

With the arrest earlier this month of an Algerian man trying to smuggle a powerful bomb from Canada into the state of Washington, border crossings all along the frontier have been placed on high alert. And just as well: A woman arrested Dec. 19 at a Vermont crossing has ties to a group believed to have sponsored terrorist activities in Europe and Algeria, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

The results are inspections that are more thorough and time-consuming than usual. At the three Western New York crossings, more trunks are being opened, more questions asked, more time taken. Some of the inevitable delays have been eased by increases in staffing and overtime, but things are moving slowly.

That can cause intense frustrations among motorists eager to reach their destinations, but so far, they seem to be taking the line-ups in stride. Given the reasons, most are only too glad to cooperate.

"There are delays, but I'm grateful for them," Clara Gallagher of Amherst told a reporter. "If any terrorist is trying to cross here, Customs will be able to prevent a tragedy from happening."

That is the fear across the country. With the huge crowds that will be gathering for end-of-the-millennium celebrations, there will be a temptation for terrorists to ply their cowardly trade. The increased attention by border-crossing guards should go a long way toward diminishing those chances.

It could also help convince Washington and Ottawa of the need to train and post more guards at these crossings routinely. The daily backups of cars and trucks are not just a frustration to travelers but a disincentive to business. Our federal representatives should be alert to the possibilities of using this period of increased staffing to lobby for a greater year-round presence.

Some people will stay away from crowded New Year's festivities this year for fear of terrorist attacks. It is an understandable and perhaps even wise decision, given the circumstances. At the same time, it's hard to ignore the voice that says to do so gives in to the terrorists. It gives them a victory. Finding the right balance can be difficult, but it is important to take appropriate precautions in this unusual holiday season while continuing to live our lives. One of the ways to discourage terrorism is to show its practitioners that it won't have the effects they want.

So leave some extra time if you have to cross the border over the next several weeks. Leave early. Bring a book. Count the cars. Plan for the delay. And once you're across, say a little prayer of thanks for the extra time it took getting through.

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