September 11, 2003
Walk Your Dog
The two suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Rishon LeZion occurred Tuesday, the day I was booking my flight to Israel for later this fall.
I fear what I'll find when I get there is a country caught up once again in a crescendo of violence. The brief calm that offered the barest of reasons for hope is no more. "We have to learn to see the lulls as the exception to the rule," an American diplomat told me last month. At the time, I could only hope he was wrong.
Then again, this is September, a month that optimists measure in dog years: the Sept. 5, 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes; Sept. 28, 2000, the beginning of the intifada, which has cost hundreds of innocent human lives; Sept. 11, 2001; and Sept. 13, the 10th anniversary of the Oslo accords, the failure of which is as much a result of terror as it is a cause of future terror.
On Tuesday morning, I attended a meeting with John Miller, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Counter-Terrorism Bureau, and it became clear to me that American Jews are in the midst of completing a double major in terrorism. America's war on terror is far from over, and we watch in horror as Israelis suffer its consequences abroad. Being ahead of the curve on this test is no comfort.
Miller is the former ABC News reporter and anchor who landed the only interview any American journalist has ever conducted with Osama bin Laden.
On May 24, 1994, bin Laden's fellow sociopaths took Miller and his camera crew on a tortuous journey into the Afghani highlands. Someone at the American Jewish Committee briefing asked Miller why, if he could find bin Laden with $70,000 and an SUV, our military cannot. Simple, said Miller, "He wanted me to find him."
Bin Laden used his prime-time appearance to declare war on the "Jews and the Crusaders," meaning Israel and America. His organization, which Miller said is less of a terrorist band and more of a sponsor and facilitator -- "the Ford Foundation of terror" -- has been active ever since. We've bagged some of its chieftains, but many others, including all the bombers of the U.S.S. Cole, are at large, and stocks of the deadly nerve agent ricin, which we know they've been working on, are unaccounted for.
So our war on terror is not over, and according to Miller, the war in Iraq (which evidently isn't over either) has, if anything, distracted us from making our own city safer. Two years after President Bush and the Department of Homeland Security swore to help cities finance anti-terror measures, the money is finally beginning to trickle in from Washington, Miller said, and even then it is not enough.
Los Angeles is a "target-rich environment," Miller said, from our amusement parks to our government buildings, our infrastructure and our film studios. The sharp eye of a single U.S. Customs agent averted what would have been a calamitous explosion at LAX planned for Jan. 1, 2000, but Al Qaeda isn't done with us. More than a dozen of their operatives are known to have passed through Southern California (three of the Sept. 11 hijackers lived in San Diego), and training tapes captured in Afghanistan show operatives practicing English 101 on pretend hostages. "Why are they training in English," asked Miller, "if they don't intend to use it?"
Several immediate fears bubbled up at the briefing. Will suicide bombers strike our malls and cafes? Miller suggested instead that Al Qaeda's MO is large-scale, well-planned and well-spaced attacks, about every two years. Are our synagogues safe during the High Holidays? Miller said that religious institutions, some of which his bureau identifies as "high-quality targets," receive extra attention at sensitive times of year. But, he added, Al Qaeda plans and executes operations when they're ready, not according to any holidays or anniversaries.
The question is not if we are we safe, but what can each of us do to be safer? The idea is to find the balance between alert and alarmed, between giving in to our fears (and to fear mongers) and giving up.
The best intelligence the task force has received recently, said Miller, came not from CIA signal intelligence in the mountains of Afghanistan, but from a woman in Los Angeles out walking her dog.
"She saw something that just didn't feel right and called us, and the information is panning out," he said.
Miller refused to go into more detail, but there was a strange comfort in the anecdote. To make our city safer we should call our City Council representatives and tell them to fund counterterrorism in Los Angeles. But we should also keep living our lives, walking our dogs and buying tickets to Israel.