Despite plunging consumer confidence in the United States during the three weeks since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, government and private economists say there is room for optimism. The United States' economic future was one topic of discussion at a public meeting about the attacks and their aftermath, held Monday night in Chicago.

The chief economist for Chicago-based Bank One, Diane Swonk, said few things can scare Americans enough to make them stop spending money, but last month's terrorist attack was just that sort of thing. She says the public's decision to stay home during the last three weeks has cost the airline, travel and hotel industry billions of dollars.

She is predicting the U.S. economy will continue to decline during the next few months, followed by an upturn as rebuilding begins in earnest. "I can easily see 20-30 percent gains in the stock market between now and the end of the year next year if nothing else major happens in that time," she said.

The U.S. Central Bank is expected to announce on Tuesday it is lowering a key interest rate to encourage Americans to spend more money. The federal funds rate the interest banks charge on overnight loans could drop to 2.5 percent its lowest level in almost 40 years.

Uncertainty about the economy was just one thing on the minds of a few hundred people who turned out for a discussion of the attacks and what happens next. One man was wondering just that, are those behind the September 11 attacks getting ready to strike again? "Do they go underground and hope and wait to see national and political will evaporate in the U.S.? Or, do they strike another devastating blow against us, which would cause us to strike out in a blind rage against a major Muslim target, which would truly initiate a jihad?," he asked.

The meeting was hosted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a local public affairs organization. In addition to Ms. Swonk from Bank One, panelists included former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley and Republican Congressman Mark Kirk of Illinois.

An audience member wanted to hear from the congressman how far the government was prepared to go in finding suspected terrorists or their supporters in the United States. But Congressman Kirk said this is no time to suspend Americans' civil liberties.

Recent polls conducted by U.S. news organizations suggest 90 percent of Americans approve of how President Bush is handling his job in the wake of the attacks. But, about half of Americans think the government should take the time to fully debate issues like granting law enforcement new powers as officials look for people who knew something about the September 11 attacks, and try to head off potential new strikes against the United States.