First, a bit of history: Way back on September 11, 2001, 19 men commandeered four commercial airliners and turned them into guided missiles, crashing two of them into the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center and the third into the Pentagon. The fourth was prevented from reaching its presumed target in Washington, D.C., when the passengers attempted to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers. That aircraft crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, killing all aboard but no one else. A total of 2,977 innocent lives were taken that day, more than were killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Come, come, Dunphy, you say. Everyone remembers the 9/11 attacks. Why the exercise in remedial history?
Because it’s sadly but plainly apparent that not everyone does remember the 9/11 attacks, as evidenced by the fact that so many people seem queasy about taking the steps necessary to prevent another attack from occurring.
Witness the hand-wringing and caterwauling over the Associated Press’s revelations that officers from the New York Police Department have been conducting surveillance on people all the way out on Long Island and even in . . . New Jersey! Civil rights trampled on! Police state! The horror!
Predictably indignant were the editors of the New York Times, who in a March 8 editorial wrote, “New York police officers fanned out across Newark in 2007, photographing Muslim businesses and gathering data on mosque worshipers. Some are now wary of praying in public, joining faith-based groups or patronizing some restaurants and shops.”
The editorial also quotes Michael Ward, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark office, who said that the NYPD’s surveillance operations in New Jersey had undermined the Bureau’s relationships with Muslims. “There’s no correlation between the location of houses of worship and minority-owned businesses and counterterrorism,” Ward said. By generating distrust, he said, the operation created “more risk.”
The rivalry between local police departments and the FBI is a tired old staple of film and television, but indeed there is a fair amount of truth in it. Yes, the FBI has some very talented people, and the inclusion of FBI manpower in a local task force can bring a welcome influx of resources to a previously stymied investigation, but among seasoned detectives in most cities the initials stand for Famous But Incompetent. Perhaps that overstates it a bit, but FBI agents put their pants on one leg at a time. They sometimes botch their cases, burn their surveillances, compromise their informants, and otherwise foul things up just as badly as local cops do. And regardless of their capabilities, there simply aren’t enough of them to cover all the ground that needs to be covered in the fight against terrorism.
There are fewer than 14,000 FBI special agents scattered across the country and beyond, and considering the many and varied missions they are expected to carry out, it is ludicrous to expect them to bear sole responsibility for conducting counter-terrorism investigations. And indeed in many cities the FBI is but one component in the Joint Terrorism Task Forces that were established after the 9/11 attacks. And in New York City, which bore the brunt of the 9/11 attacks and is presumably high on any list of al-Qaeda’s future potential targets, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly would be worse than fools if they left it to the feds to protect the city from another attack.
So the question for Bloomberg and Kelly then becomes: How do you deploy your resources in such a way as to maximize their effectiveness in thwarting whatever malign designs people may have? Let us suppose some undercover NYPD officers spot people they believe to be engaged in target reconnaissance in Lower Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge. For added realism, let us further suppose these suspicious figures are young men who appear to be Muslims. (Did you know that all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers happened to be Muslims? It’s true!) The NYPD officers watch as these men take photographs of the bridge, the courthouses, City Hall, and One Police Plaza. (I know, it’s not against the law to take pictures of these places. And it’s not against the law for a police officer to watch people taking such pictures.)
Now let’s say these swarthy young men traverse Lower Manhattan and head for New Jersey via the Holland Tunnel, another ripe target for the aspiring terrorist. Should our NYPD officers abandon their surveillance when they reach the mid-point of the Hudson River? And if the officers should be so unlucky as to lose the suspects in traffic after discovering they are residents of New Jersey, would it be unreasonable for them to resume their surveillance at the suspects’ homes and monitor their activity further? They would be irresponsible not to, and no one should expect to be immune from scrutiny by dint of having crossed a state line. A potential terrorist might start his day in Philadelphia and end it in Boston, passing through Newark, New York City, Hartford, and Providence on the way. If the people following him happen to be local police officers rather than federal agents, should his activities go unobserved merely because he has passed through six states?
To his great credit, Commissioner Kelly is not backing down. Speaking on radio station WOR, Kelly told listeners, “People have short memories as to what happened here in 2001.”
And it is those people with short memories who have their knickers all in a wad over what Kelly’s NYPD is doing in the fight against terror. If the NYPD is constrained from conducting surveillance or other investigations out of concern for Muslims’ delicate sensibilities, and if the Empire State Building should therefore end up as a pile of rubble scattered up and down 34th Street, will these same people console themselves in the knowledge that at least no one was profiled or had his feelings hurt?