In Israel, shoppers wait in long lines to have their bags checked, while heavily armed guards roam the malls. The owners have no choice. They must obey stringent standards to obtain government security certification.

Israelis, who live in fear of suicide bombers, are used to the inconvenience; most wouldn't want it any other way. The question is: Are Americans ready for this model?

Probably not, consultants say. U.S. shoppers expect “a certain level of freedom,” says Paul McCabe, an FBI special agent in Minneapolis who has worked with Mall of America. “I don't think they want military-style people carrying M-16s around.”

The debate over mall security flared up again in June with news of an alleged al Qaeda plot to blow up an unspecified shopping center in the Columbus, Ohio, area. While mall owners boast of new, tougher security measures, they won't reveal details for obvious reasons. They don't want to tip their hand to terrorists.

But without adopting stricter bag checks and other searches, are they doing enough? Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), for one, doesn't think so. He has called on the federal government to provide more funding to speed up development of portable detectors that sense chemical, biological or explosive material for malls in high-risk areas. “We've gone all out to shore up air security, and now we have to catch up with mall security.”

That would be expensive, however. “Upgraded efforts can double common-area maintenance charges overnight,” says David Gaier, vice president at consulting firm Urbitran Associates Inc. He says a Times Square client (not a retailer) recently spent $450,000 to beef up security, including affixing a film to windows to prevent flying glass in the event of an explosion and bolting window panes in place.

Enclosed malls invested $1.4 billion in security in 2002, says the International Council of Shopping Centers. It hasn't formally tracked the growth in spending since September 11.

Owners Mum on Plans

Mall owners say they're doing their best to prepare for terrorist events. They're installing more video cameras to monitor visitors for suspicious behavior and setting up barricades or planters to keep vehicles from accessing entries. The FBI has said it is helping malls find weaknesses; for example, out-of-the-way unlocked doors or rooftop air intakes where attackers might introduce poison or microbes.

Despite these efforts, Gaier finds flaws in the malls. Security guards focus on shoplifting and hooliganism, he says, and may not know what to do in a terrorist attack. A former U.S. Marine embassy guard in Morocco and Beirut doubts many mall guards are trained whether or not to evacuate shoppers after a threat into a “kill zone,” where terrorists have planted one or more bombs. Is it safer in the mall, or outside?

Gaier also spots possible attack points. He describes a New York City-area mall where only a chain-link fence protects diesel tanks near an anchor tenant. A bomb could detonate the tanks, killing staff and shoppers.

Security alerts have already prompted trunk searches in mall parking ramps. And the time may come when malls close some entries and search all bags, says Malachy Kavanagh, ICSC spokesman — but probably only at the highest state of alert. “Consumers are willing to accept more stringent security measures only when the threat level is raised,” Kavanagh says.

Mostly though, the industry fears that just mentioning anti-terrorism measures may spook shoppers. “I wouldn't advise them to talk about that subject,” says one public relations representative with several mall clients. “It's a no-win.”