How likely is it that the great subway-bomb scare of Oct. 6 was orchestrated by Mayor Bloomberg to deflect attention from his refusal to show up for that night’s campaign debate?

I don’t normally go for conspiracy theories, but this one’s plausible. Bloomberg’s campaign so far has taken the attitude that he’s running essentially unopposed, that Democrat Fernando Ferrer is a pathetic schmuck with no hope of winning. Bloomberg also hasn’t forgotten that the city is 5-to-1 Democratic and roughly half Black and Latino. If these voters get riled up about his plutocratic policies (Ferrer, stuck in the classic Democratic dilemma of trying to excite working-class, Black and Latino voters without alienating big-money contributors or alarming the city’s corporate media, hasn’t done much on that front), the mayor could be in trouble. On a slow news day, Bloomberg’s refusal to show up for the debate at the Apollo Theatre, with its overtones of arrogance, cowardice and racism, could have set something off.

So the mayor and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly pluck a rumor out of the chatter and go public with a “terrorist threat.” They flooded the city with warnings that “up to 19 terrorists” were planning to attack the subways with bombs in strollers or baby carriages. The result: Instead of the big story of the day being Freddy Ferrer debating an empty chair, it was al-Qaeda’s fiendish stroller-bomb plot. The city’s establishment and many of its people reacted with a predictable loss of bowel control; the Daily News was so outraged that they sent a young woman reporter into the subways with a babyless stroller AND SHE DIDN’T

If this had been a genuine, concrete threat, we could see the better-safe-than-sorry argument. But the “specific” information touted by Bloomberg and Kelly came from a fairly questionable Iraqi informant; the alleged plotters turned out to be stuck in Iraq with neither passports nor plane tickets. Even George Bush’s Department of Homeland Security didn’t consider this threat credible.

What makes the timing especially suspicious is that Bloomberg and Kelly have a history of putting out phony scare stories for political advantage. When they were trying to justify their plans to suppress the protests at the Republican convention last year, they spent the summer leaking absurd tales of anarchist plots, and the corporate press lapped them up. Anyone remember how anarchists were going to sabotage the city’s power lines by throwing bags of metal filings at them? Or how Weather Underground bombers were going to come out of retirement for the protests, like the Jefferson Airplane doing a reunion tour?