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Terrorism fears and post-WTO jitters snuff out Seattle Center millennium eve celebration on December 31, 1999.

HistoryLink.org Essay 2991 : Printer-Friendly Format

On December 31, 1999, Mayor Paul Schell closes Seattle Center at 6 p.m. and orders a massive force of 895 police officers and 320 fire fighters on alert for possible terrorist attacks and WTO-style anarchy. Although the traditional Space Needle fireworks program occurs, Seattle is alone among the world's major cities in canceling a public observance of the "new millennium."

After consultation with federal and local police and the Seattle City Council, the mayor announced cancellation of the planned Seattle Center millennium party on December 27, 1999. Among the events scrubbed was a "Hope and Dreams Fire Ceremony" in which artist Carl Smool proposed to ignite 17 giant papier-mache figures (this was postponed to March 19, 2000). The traditional Space Needle fireworks display was permitted, but Seattle Center was fenced off and guarded by hundreds of police, forcing spectators to watch from afar.

Terrorist Target?

In scaling back plans for New Year's Eve 2000, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014) and local police were still reeling from the violent clashes during early December's World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and ensuing public criticism. Anxieties were further inflamed on December 14 by the arrest of Ahmed Ressam at Port Angeles as he tried to enter the United States from Canada with alleged bomb components. Ressam reportedly had reservations at a motel near Seattle Center.

Ressam, an Algerian national residing in Montreal, was later indicted for engaging in terrorist activities, supposedly in association with Saudi Arabian dissident and Islamic leader Osama bin Laden. Authorities believed that bin Laden was planning to disrupt American millennium events, and Mayor Schell decided to take no chances in Seattle. No such incidents actually occurred, and comedians such as NBC Tonight Show host Jay Leno savaged Seattle's skittishness.

Rassam later confessed that he was a participant in a planned terrorist attack against the Los Angeles International Airport. In the wake of the attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, Mayor Schell's caution in 1999 no longer seems disproportionate.

The Seattle Times, December 23, 1999; Ibid., December 28, 1999; Ibid., January 1, 2000.
Note: This essay was updated on September 11, 2001.

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Special Suite: WTO Protests 1999 |

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