August 05, 2005

Effective July 22nd...Your Bags...May Be Subject to Search...

If someone had told you twenty years ago, say, that your old prep school buddies would be living on Avenue C (D, even!), that smoking would be disallowed in all New York City restaurants and bars, that you wouldn't necessarily seriously risk getting mugged on Upper Broadway on your way to hail a cab, that Columbus Circle and Bryant Park would become big, gleaming, wifi-enabled malls (the whole city, even!), that one room studios would change hands for US $ 1MM, that new neighborhoods with strange names like Bococa or SoHa would somehow come on the scene and, er, by the way, that your bags would be subjected to searches on your subway commute--you'd probably tell your interlocuter he was on crack and to lay off the pipe. But hey, it's 2005, and the New New York is really as I describe it. Of course, there's been the long bull market (capped by the NASDAQ 5000 follies), and Giuliani's strong anti-crime hand, and epoch-making 9/11, and then 7/7 in London--so you can kind of sketch out how it all came to be! Still, it's quite something to digest in the aggregate, no?

Perhaps, however, the most shocking change of all is how low-key the reaction among fiercely independent New Yorkers has been to the fact that their belongings can now be ingloriously searched if they wish to subject themselves to the deep sorrows and stenches of the August subway here. Today, I finally saw two cops at my very own subway station this A.M.--ostensibly there to peform bag checks--though they weren't checking as I went down the stairs on my way to take the 4,5,6 uptown. Anyway, and like TCR reportedly, I guess you could say I look a tad swarthy, but, lucky me, no one deigned to peer into my briefcase. What do I think of these new security measures? Oh, I don't know...the reaction in most of the circles I run in has been something of a grudging recognition that, post-London especially, it probably strikes about the right balance between security and privacy concerns. But, as is his wont (and one of the reasons he's so good), TCR gives us the anti-herd, contrarian take:

How about with a fundamental question: can this actually work? Will it make us safer? While reasonable people can debate it endlessly, my sense is that this is folly. There are thousands of points of entry into the New York City public transportation system. If a terrorist is trying to enter the subway system, for example, and sees a cop waiting, he can simply turn around and leave. He can come back later, try another point of entry, or get on a bus or commuter train. And if he somehow does get singled out for a search, he can simply refuse and be allowed to leave the system. Someone intent on a subway attack is not going to be deterred by an average beat cop standing at a turnstile any more than a serial killer is deterred by the death penalty. Essentially, the system is too large and open to "protect" in any preventative sense.

In addition, I have absolutely zero confidence in the ability of the average underpaid and overworked New York City cop to understand, apply and adhere to the rigorous standards for racial profiling established by our judicial system. Other law enforcement officers such as state troopers go through extensive sophisticated training on this, and are monitored constantly for abuses. And that does not end problems with profiling, as we occasionally see with highway stops. Turning thousands of cops loose inside the public transportation system with a not-so-vague notion of what the "enemy" looks like and giving them free rein to grab anyone they want at rush hour? You don't think that's going to cause some serious problems? Get ready for a deluge of media reports---as well as lawsuits---about those pulled aside based on complexion or ethnicity.

But even if we temporarily stipulate that this may deter potential attacks, we must then consider the trade-offs. What do we give up for this extra sliver of safety?

One of the immediate effects of 9/11 was public adulation of the police and fire departments. They became heroes, and everyone from Rudy Giuliani at Yankee games to average citizens on the street wore NYPD and FDNY baseball caps. Inserting the police in such a stark way into the basic fabric of New York City life---the subways, buses and trains---will change that. Do you think joe six-pack who rides the subway every day is going to see the police the same way? Will he keep wearing that NYPD cap after he gets pulled aside by a cop demanding to rifle through his bag?

This has important implications. Society sees its local cops as ticket-writing, neighborhood-patrolling, cruiser-riding monitors of public safety. The role of the cop is generally a passive one; he watches, monitors, and when necessary responds. Transforming that role into one of a gatekeeper and grand inquisitor is a fundamental, radical move. I believe strongly that the public's vigilance and cooperation with law enforcement keeps us far safer from terrorism than the efforts of law enforcement alone. And I think most cops would agree with that. Anything that turns the average cop into an agent of an intrusive, behavior-monitoring state---yes, the police have said that those caught carrying drugs or other contraband during these searches will be arrested---will alter public perception, and thus impact our ability to combat the terrorism this is supposed to prevent. Someone who is pulled aside suddenly (and possibly repeatedly) or sees it happen to friends or family is far less likely to make an extra effort to help the police. That mentality is not too difficult to understand, particularly in New York City.

The broader picture is even more distressing. President Bush is fond of the bromide that "the terrorists hate our way of life." Assuming that's true, why are we helping them achieve their goals via creeping, incremental, self-imposed restrictions on that way of life? Does our way of life not entail the ability to shop or go to work without the possibility of being yanked out of a crowd by the police for absolutely no reason at all?

Do we have more to fear from a terrorist who might get on a bus, or cloying and cowardly public servants who will surrender something the rest of us hold dear so they have a slogan to use during the next election? Is it really so hard to envision us waking up as a nation one day in five or ten years, suddenly realizing how much of our own freedom we've gladly given away in the name of safety, and wondering why we are no safer than when we started down that road?

OK New Yorkers (particularly you strap-hangers in the house), what sayeth you? I happen to think the police presence is likely a greater deterrent than TCR makes it out to be. Many of these suicide bombers are cowards, fearful of being caught if they don't pull off their mission, and so there might be some deterrent factor in this respect. Also, of course, the police appear in my experience over the past two odd weeks to be moving about randomly. They aren't, say, always huddled at Grand Central or Penn Station or Union Sq. They are showing their faces at odd and more obscure entrances, like mine, and I think that helps keep the potential bombers off-balance. And even if this deployment isn't uber-efficient, if it stops even one massacre on the J or Z or N or R trains--won't it have been worth it? Well, civil liberatarians will argue, at what expense? What is the cost in terms of extinguishment of personal rights? TCR is concerned freedom dies in such small-scale fashion, agreggated over time, so that we wake up 10 yrs hence and find ourselves in some Manhattan-Reich (even worse than Rudy's!). How did it all happen, we will then regretfully ponder, in silence of course, for fear the Stasi-on-the-Hudson come a-knockin'. I guess I don't think we're there really, and I don't think this action is risking us galloping there either, as best I can tell. But I'm happy to hear your views...either comment below pls.

Posted by Gregory at August 5, 2005 04:42 AM | TrackBack (0)

To be frank, this post is baffling. You seem disappointed that (a) all the silly, empty-headed liberals didn't raise a barely justified hue and cry about the searches, and (b) that you yourself didn't get searched.

Sorry to disappoint.

Posted by: Martin at August 5, 2005 06:05 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

i find your comment baffling! not sure you got me, and i didn't get u! must be the hour, and apologies for underwhelming you. it happens...

Posted by: greg at August 5, 2005 06:26 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think what I was getting at is, when I last commented here, about a week ago, you were criticizing the liberals for being so gung-ho about the 16 words.... so light on the trigger finger, you know, when it comes to criticizing the Bushian GWOT without sufficient cause.

And now the Homeland Security Department makes a decision to start searching bags, so cue the off-topic liberal whining.... and when there is none to be heard, you criticize them for.... well, for not being oppositional enough. I realize that the 16 words and the submachinegun-toting National Guardsmen at Times Square are different subjects, but one possible conclusion from all of the above is that the antiwar crowd actually has a halfway decent intellectual basis for their beliefs and, using that same intellect, judged the searches to be an acceptable sacrifice (as you yourself concluded).

Well whatevs, I'm probably overreacting, I don't even count as one of the slighted. I'm just always on the lookout for the edges of accusation -- and when they don't match up.

Posted by: Martin at August 5, 2005 06:47 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What's the smoking ban got to do with it? Is that good or bad?

Posted by: DavidP at August 5, 2005 08:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What's the smoking ban got to do with it? Is that good or bad?

Posted by: DavidP at August 5, 2005 08:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As a straphanger - and someone who knows a lot of NYPD - let me explain that the "no profiling" issue is not a matter of them being undertrained, overworked or anything else

The NYPD rank and file considers the whole "no profilling when doing searches" order ridiculous in the extreme

And so they are ignoring it

And I am glad they are ignoring it - because to follow it would be to make a mockery of the whole idea behind the searches

And inevitably the ACLU will file suit and produce some tape of the cops searching several "swarthy looking men with bags" in a row while letting dozens of asian grandmothers pass without a check - and so win a great victory for AQ's operational tactics

woo hoo

PS - the smoking ban is bad

Posted by: Pogue Mahone at August 5, 2005 02:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I have seen plenty of cops at my station (14th & 8th), but haven't been stopped either. Obviously, the question is how effective can the searches be? I don't think I am all that qualified to make that judgment; I guess I have to trust the professionals to make that judgment for me. Now, I realize that this could just be a PR move - so that Bloomberg looks like he is "doing something" to prevent 7/7-style attacks. But I have no evidence of that.

As to the degree of liberty lost here - I'd say it is virtually none. Accordingly, I think TCR's use of the Franklin quote ("They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.") is completely asinine. Since when is being free of a search to make sure you are not carrying a bomb to blow up the subway a component of "essential liberty"? Since never.

Posted by: Al at August 5, 2005 04:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Your posting sure generated some nostalgia for my earlier days - being a single straight male in his 20's in the 10024 zip code was a lot more fun than being middle aged down here in in the Carolina's. As far as the rules hamstringing the police on their searches - remember that NYC cops are the ones who invented the "rule book slowdown." They are smart enough to comply with the civil liberties nonsence yet still find a way to approach the Pakistani kid wearing a parka in August.

Posted by: wayne at August 5, 2005 04:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

These bag searches are the product of Mayor Bloomberg's tiny arrogant mind.
As an example of his arrogance: he has dismissed the annoyance of car alarms in the middle of the night. He doesn't take the City Council's antinoise legislation seriously.
Does that sound like small potatoes? Not if you have ever had to go to work on only two hours of sleep.
Whatís the connection to bag searches? This is how Mayor Bloomberg relates to the citizens of New York; badly. When the bombings in London happened, he had to do something. Bag searches look like something if you donít look closely enough. He didnít bother.
Its like Congressí decision to extend Daylight Savings Time in order to save energy. They havenít the will to do something smart about energy, but they have the will to do something stupid which will inconvenience everybody

Posted by: Carl Zeichner at August 5, 2005 04:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Al said:

Since when is being free of a search to make sure you are not carrying a bomb to blow up the subway a component of "essential liberty"? Since never.

Er...are you serious Al?

The freedom from random search and seizure is kind of, you know, in that dusty old document called the Constitution. Does that count as "essential"?

Using your rationale, why couldn't police knock on/down any door at any time to see if there is anyone making a bomb. After all, since when is being free of a search to make sure you are not carrying a bomb to blow up the subway a component of "essential liberty"? Since never.

Oh yeah, and if they happen to catch you with an ounce of pot, or some Cuban cigars, well, sorry but you can be arrested for that too.

Those are tactics in a police state, not a Constitutional democracy. The point is, you can't use the potential crime as the justification for the search because that argument could used to justify any behavior whatsover. Just fill in the blanks:

Since when is being free of [insert liberty restricting state action] to make sure you are not [insert illegal behavior] a component of "essential liberty"? And by the way even if the [insert liberty restricting state action] did not catch you doing [insert illegal behavior] it can yield evidence of other illegal activity to be used against you in a court of law. Brilliant folks. Why, back in the USSR....

Now as for this particular use of random searches, maybe in a limited setting it might be justified and acceptable under Con-Law jurisprudence (though that question hasn't been setteled yet), but I am with TCR on the supposed efficacy of this program - and have argued as much many times before.

The problem is, if someone doesn't want the cops to search their bag, they are free to walk away. So let's say there is a cell of terrorists who were planning a subway strike, then they learn of the new bag searching rule. Would they now call it off? Probably not. They would likely just say that if you see cops searching bags at your station, go to a different station nearby or hop on a bus. Its not that difficult. Besides, there is 0% chance of getting caught unless the would-be terrorists says, "OK officer, you can search my bag." Instead of, "No you can't search my bag, I'm leaving this station." Wow. What a deterrent.

(FWIW - I am a straphanger on the 4,5,6 every day from Wall St. to Grand Central to 50th and back)

Posted by: Eric Martin at August 5, 2005 05:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree that the policy is a waste of time Eric - but I do want to make clear that profiling is correct

Posted by: Pogue Mahone at August 5, 2005 05:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think one of the most basic liberties in a free society is the right of the law-abiding citizen to be free of police harassment. I also think these searches are more about giving the impression of safety then actual safety. Given the ease of getting around them--turn around and walk two blocks to another entrance--I can't imagine they'll ever stop a bomber.

Nevertheless, I can't get too worked up about it. We've had searches in the airport for years. We have searches in all government buildings and sports arenas and other public gatherings, most corporate offices require ID and a sign-in sheet.

As offensive as these searches are philosophically, they've become so much a part of our society already that adding a subway search isn't changing much.

HEY MARTIN: I didn't get searched and you're right. I was a disappointed. I wanted to be oppressed so I could get upset about my oppression. They denied me my outrage! Dammit.

Posted by: byrd at August 5, 2005 06:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The freedom from random search and seizure is kind of, you know, in that dusty old document called the Constitution.

Um, Eric Martin, you haven't read your Constitution lately, have you? It is freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, not "random" searches and seizures. As our experience at airports show, random bag searches are not necessarily unreasonable. In any case, I don't consider searches of my bags at an airport to be the relinquishing of any "essential liberty" (to use Franklin's term), nor do I consider similar searches for in subways to be the relinquishing of any "essential liberty".

Posted by: Al at August 5, 2005 06:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The one thing I can see these searches accomplishing is adding some uncertainty to the terrorists' plans. They now have to account for an increased risk of detection. This imposes some operational costs on them and makes it more difficult to be sure of achieving their aims. Is it worth it? We may never know. It might force them to abandon, delay, or modify their plans and buy us some time.

Posted by: Mitch at August 5, 2005 07:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I actually am in favor of profiling. If they're going to search bags, then focus on likely perpetrators. That being said, they shouldn't limit that potential field of attackers to certain skin colors, as young caucasian and non-Muslim men have shown a propensity to either commit terroism (McVeigh, Rudolph) or join the ranks of Islamic jihadists (Lindh, Padilla). But I would prefer they leave the old women/men out of it, as well as young children. Further, and this is probably common sense, they should tap any suspicious party, such as a young woman wearing a parka in July. Especially this July. Man is it hot.


The "reasonableness" of the random search must be weighed using the applicable Con-Law tests (strict scrutiny I believe). Not all random searches are unconstitutional, nor are they all constitutional. Much also depends on who is doing the searching, private company for use of a private facility, vs state entity/actor. In some cases, the airport analogy doesn't really apply where it is a private/private actor. Same goes for searches upon entry into clubs, concerts and sporting events. A better analogy to the NYC subway searches would probably be random DWI roadblocks set up by police.

But you said nothing about "random" or "reasonable" in your first response, you just said "search." Still, point taken about my use of random. Now that we have clarified the terms a little better, we can discuss the parameters of this particular search, without making broad statements one way or the other.

It's not that I am particularly outraged at the subway searches, it's just that I don't think they will be very effective, and they set a very bad precedent. Exactly for the reasons Al mentions. We want to avoid people getting comfortable with the notion of the police can search citizens at random in more and more settings. As such, the costs outweigh the benefits.

As a general rule, I don't think we should rely on the NYPD or an executive authority (Mayor, Governor, POTUS) to determine the parameters of rights and liberties. When given the choice, police and executives will always take as much as they can, and assure us they can be trusted - 99% of the time with good intentions.

This country was founded on the notion that such trust is illusory, ill founded and rarely warranted.

Posted by: Eric Martin at August 5, 2005 07:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Eric - it all sounds good - except that the fact that you can actually name the few non young muslim males who have been involved in such activities means that these are the exception

We should not alter procedure to deal with the exceptions

If you can name the few exceptions then it proves the rule

Posted by: Pogue Mahone at August 5, 2005 09:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hmmm Pogue,

What exactly is the rule? If we actually add up the number of terrorist incidents in America over the past decade or so, it's a pretty mixed bag. Other than the two WTC bombings (the full 9/11 attack included), America has actually seen more terrorist incidents carried out by white milita groups or other caucasian extremists. Rudolph, McVeigh, Kaczynski and Kuresh between them have accounted for a larger number of incidents - although not a higher death toll due to 9/11's enormity.

On the other hand, there was a foiled Millenium Plot which was definitely going to be carried out by young Muslim men. But if we're talking potential attacks or attackers, we should probably take note of people like William Krar:

And Lawrence Fox:

And we might want to consider the risk of people like this possessing Ricin:

I'm not trying to be pedantic here, or suggesting that we shouldn't be focused on the very real risk group that is men of Arab/North African descent. I'm just saying that AQ and their ilk are intelligent, they're paying attention, and they adapt. If we develop a profile to the exclusion of other groups, they will try to defeat it by changing the appearance of the would-be assailants to go by undetected. We have already seen that women will engage in terrorist attacks under the right setting. And unfortunately, we have more than a few domestic non-Arab/North African males who are more than eligible candidates for recruitment/extremist thinking.

Posted by: Eric Martin at August 5, 2005 09:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What do we give up for this extra sliver of safety?

I think the degree to which bag-checking wastes resources deserves more attention than the degree to which it violates rights. Rights are abstract; resources are concrete. In the middle of an emergency, social rules fall apart and rights are established by the law of the jungle: the people who push their way out the door the fastest get the right to live. Rights can be constructed in an instant out of blood, sweat, and tears. Resources can't.

And a great part of what we're giving up for this extra sliver of safety is availability of resources. Like depleting our reserves to democratize Iraq leaves us vulnerable to threats by North Korea, sending half our cops to patrol subways gives off-the-radar extremist recruiters more leeway to operate on the streets. Our current bag-searching strategy is similar to requiring monthly full-body cancer checks for everyone 18 and over. The tradeoff for the increase in cancer prevention would be the decrease in availablity of doctors. The following year 10% fewer people die from cancer, but an anthrax attack kills 200% more people than would have been killed had we not taken away so much of our doctors' availability with cancer checks.

Which is a better allocation of resources: stationing cops to check bags at the places terrorists attacked last time or sending them to training programs to study the roots, themes, habits, strengths, and weaknesses of various strains of terrorism? Which negative consequence from one of the above choices would outrage/frighten you more: a subway bomb or airplane hijacking that kills 200 people (already on alert, the passengers, the Dept. of Transportation, and the military were quick to take action, minimizing casualties) or a coordinated attack on 10 targets of a new type (stadiums, hospitals, generators, etc) that takes everyone completely by surprise and kills 3,000 people, orchestrated by a 180-member terrorist cell that has been thriving in your downtown?

Investing in search quantity rather than in search quality will make things look and seem more safe, but doing the reverse will help us be more safe. If everybody had a high EQ and stayed rational during panic, the choice would be obvious. But an awful lot of people need things to look and seem more safe and don't understand the mechanics of fighting ideological extremism or of programs that compromise the appearance of safety in the name of increasing actual safety.

If I were in charge I'd say to hell with those people--an outraged group of dumbasses isn't a tenth as dangerous as a patiently seething group of extremists--and I'd cut back random bag-checking assignments and invest the bulk of the resources at hand in psychological and cultural training programs. But the overhaul wouldn't be about privacy or civil rights. It would be about triage.

Posted by: Mrs. Columbo at August 5, 2005 10:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mrs. Columbo, Instructing beat cops in the "roots, themes, habits, strengths, and weaknesses of various strains of terrorism" would be a useless academic exercise, since they aren't responsible for developing strategy but implementing it.

As for the proper allocation of resources, cops in stations also suppress crimes other than terrorism, so they're presence has a value beyond that of baggage checks, and you have to factor that in. The greater problem is that there obviously aren't enough cops to implement continual bag checks at every station; likewise, giving riders the option to reject being searched if they leave the station only displaces any terrorist threat to stations where there are no cops. For the bag search to be effective it must be compulsory and surprising (i.e. random in a way that a terrorist could not predict or avoid). Then the subway becomes a threat to the terrorist. The cops know this, surely, and it will come, down the road, once people have gotten their minds over the conceptual hurdle of bag searches. In other words, the bag searches we have today are aimed more at adapting the psychology of riders than the capture of terrorists. A real, effective bag search policy will follow. Otherwise these bag searches truly are useless.

Posted by: clay at August 5, 2005 11:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Beat cops aren't minions simply implementing strategies. Their skills on the street have a lot to do with their aptitude for knowing which strategy to use when, and how to switch from one tactic to another quickly and efficiently. Teaching them the goals, common behavioral cues, and likely panic reactions of various strains of extremists would arm them with better judgment when they have to choose a communication style on the fly. I don't think that would be a useless academic exercise.

Also, "once people have gotten their minds over the conceptual hurdle of bag searches," there will be a sufficient rise in home-grown disorders rooted in paranoia to make foreign terrorists seem like the least of our worries.

Posted by: Mrs. Columbo at August 6, 2005 04:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I am actually surprised that both searches like this haven't happened before, and that terrorists have not blown up subways in NYC before.

Recall the Blind Sheik and his group wanted to blow up subways. Back in the mid nineties. The follow on conspirators to Ramzi Yousef's group.

When Zawahari's threats become reality here, likely NYC, expect real profiling to take place. PC and Multi-culti crap will only take you so far, when people start dying, a lot of them, folks demand answers.

If you want to know what life in the US will be like in ten years, look at Israel now.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at August 6, 2005 07:46 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Eric - the fact that you can now name four ( 4 ) non-muslim terrorists doesn't mean that the standard profile is wrong

I can post information on 400! young muslim male terrorists

If our goal is safety then we must accept that

a) we can't search everyone

b) there is a profile of the terrorist - usually a muslim male from 17-40

If we are going to search people - we should concentrate on those that fit the profile

Its very simple - are you more worried about the young arab/muslim looking guy with the backpack or the white guy with the backpack

This doesn't mean the white guy couldn't be a bomber - it just means its much less likely

Posted by: Pogue Mahone at August 6, 2005 04:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Here in London they are searching bags, and have been instructed 'not to waste time with little old white ladies' which seems to be fairly accepted here. Apparently, its mostly young blokes being targetted, though a London Underground worker in uniform commented on being searched in uniform.

Cops with guns on Underground stations, or indeed anywhere, are a rather unusual experience for us and although its somewhat reassuring, since the tragedy of the mistaken shooting of the Brazilian electrician, its also frightening.

It does worry me that our hitherto fairly open and tolerant society is being changed, and so the terrorists are succeeding.

Posted by: Cathryn Symons at August 6, 2005 06:57 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't live in New York, but I do live in Jerusalem, Israel, where suicide attacks against public transport are not exactly a new phenomenon. Moreover, I belong to a volunteer anti-terrorist unit of the Israel Police. I work, always with a partner, in uniform and armed, two nights a week, near locations where citizens board public transport. We have one mission--to be alert for suicide attackers (who may or may not be bombers, of course). In the circumstances, perhaps what I have to say is relevant to this discussion of a threat that we in Israel have long known would eventually reach New York, London and other cities of the Western democracies.

Do I employ ethnic profiling on patrol? You bet. When I stand in public in that uniform I am acutely aware of my status as a big blue target--the terrorist is going to want to take me out first, if he or she can, before going after the public I'm there to protect. That public is relying on me to be the first to identify and stop the terrorist. And I'd like to go home with all my body parts intact, thank you very much.

So I'm not motivated to be politically correct. I scrutinize everyone around me with rapt attention. I look carefully, in the first instance, at apparent Arab males and females in the 16-25 year-old age group because repeated tragedy has taught us that suicide attackers have overwhelmingly come from that demographic. To pretend otherwise is beyond foolish. Islamist terror groups have, as yet, been unsuccessful in recruiting many blond Scandinavians as suicide attackers.

Do I go on red alert at the sight of every Arab I see? No, but since I work in a part of Jerusalem where relatively few Arabs are boarding public transport during my working hours, their occasional presence arouses, at least, my curiousity. If the individual exhibits some of the other now well-known classic identifiers, such as a large backpack, inappropriate clothing for the weather, and so forth, my curiousity grows.

Can I always identify an Arab just by looking? No. Many Sephardic Jews, those with origins in Arab countries, often look like Arabs to me, an American-born Jew of European origin. So if I'm in doubt, my partner and I approach the individual in question, gently lead him or her away from the crowd, and begin a chat. The conversation usually goes like this: "Good evening. Where are you traveling tonight? May I please see your identity card?" (Citizens and permanent residents of Israel and the occupied territories over the age of 14 are required to carry a national ID card and display it for the police if asked.) The individual's accent and demeanor immediately tells me a lot about who he or she is and their emotional state. Meanwhile, I am looking at where the subject's hands are, their clothing, their backpack or other packages. I have asked people to open their bags for inspection.

Do Arab citizens of Israel, who enjoy the same constitutional rights as the rest of us, feel demeaned by such interference? For that matter, what about the olive-skinned Jew who probably gets this treatment more often than others? Probably. I'm sorry about that. I try not to offend unnecessarily. But I want to go home alive at the end of my tour, as do the civilian commuters I'm there to protect. Such is our existential situation--and yours too, now, New York.

What if the suicide attacker has managed to disguise the fact that he or she is an Arab? Some have done so successfully. And what about that theoretically rare but potentially deadly blond Scandinavian, recruited to the cause of Islamic terror? Well, we have some other tricks for spotting attackers, some of whom might be trying to pull off the appearance, say, of an Israel Defense Forces soldier in uniform, a secular Jewish junior high school girl with an exposed navel, or a black-clothed ultra-orthodox Jew in skullcap and sidecurls--I won't give those away here.

The other night my partner and I stopped and questioned a tall, young, strong-looking, olive-skinned male carrying a very large gym bag. He was at a bus stop but standing quite apart from the other waiting passengers. When he first passed me it seemed to me that he deliberately avoided eye contact. I was silently sweating bullets. The individual, upon being asked for his identification papers, turned out to be a foreign worker from a Latin American country with a valid passport and visa in his possession. I made him open his gym bag. He seemed offended that we had bothered him. Sorry.

What must I do should the worst happen and, God forbid, I'm confronted with the real thing? I'm supposed to "immobilize" the attacker before he or she strikes. We all know what that means, don't we? We've all read about the killing head shot. That's one option; there's another one, too, which I must keep under wraps for now. Can I do this, if I have to? I don't know; I don't want to find out.

My point here is only to try to inject some reality into the debate over public safety suddenly confronting New Yorkers, Londoners, and others in the West who have woken up to an old/new reality--new to you, but to us Israelis all too sadly familiar.

Posted by: Martin Cooper at August 7, 2005 11:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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