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Jewish World Review May 22, 2002 / 11 Sivan, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Apartments as weapons
of destruction | Oh, great.

In central Florida over the weekend, residents of a large apartment complex found notes taped to their doors. The notes said, in part:

"Discussions were held about the possibility of renting apartment units in various areas of the United States and rigging them with explosives."

It would be bad enough if the notes were a prank. They weren't.

The FBI has been hearing that, among the current plans of Osama bin Laden's terror network, there exists the possibility of having operatives in the U.S. rent apartments or condo units in large buildings with many residents -- and then blow up the apartments, and presumably the buildings.

Like so many reports that law enforcement has been hearing, this one was lacking in specifics. But just to be safe -- an "abundance of caution" was the phrase used by an FBI spokeswoman -- the bureau informed its national field offices about what it had heard, and also sent word to the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

It was up to individual jurisdictions what to do with the information. In some areas, police chiefs and mayors were told; in some places the warning was passed on to apartment-complex managers. Which led to the notes posted on the residents' doors in Florida.

While this was happening over the weekend, other reports were made public -- these, too, were characterized as being short on specifics -- that the terror network was planning new attacks on the U.S., attacks "as big or bigger" than what happened on Sept. 11. It wasn't a stretch to put the two together: attacks more deadly than Sept. 11, plots to rent apartments in high-rises and fill them with explosives. ...

The most sobering part of this is that it is far from being inconceivable. After the attacks on the U.S. eight months ago, nothing seems impossible -- and what makes the apartment warnings so chilling is that there is a parallel with what happened Sept. 11.

After the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the almost universal reaction among Americans was: It was such a simple idea that we never saw it coming. Using commercial jets as missiles -- it was right in front of us, and we never thought of it.

That's what is haunting about the FBI advisory concerning terrorists renting apartments. With the enormous efforts being made to lock down airports so no jet can be flown into a building, it would make sense if the terrorists have in fact shifted their interest to the buildings themselves. Once again, it is such a simple idea that we didn't see it. You don't need an airplane to bring down a building. If you rent an apartment -- or apartments -- and load those apartments floor-to-ceiling with explosives. ...

These are going to be some ugly months. If someone in the government doesn't downplay these reports quickly -- and who's going to do that? The reports are too plausible -- then apartment managers, security guards and police are going to be swamped with calls from worried residents who see people carrying heavy suitcases or boxes up elevators. We are a nation in which neighbors often don't know neighbors -- in large apartment buildings, residents on different floors, and even on the same floors, sometimes seldom speak -- so for the warning to go out that apartments may be turned into bombs waiting to explode. ...

Would we have been better off had word of this not been made public? That was an impossibility -- especially after the events of the last week. With all the criticism the White House has received about its alleged pre-Sept. 11 knowledge of hijack plans, there was no way these new reports were going to be kept secret. You can almost hear someone in the White House sighing wearily and saying: "Better tell the country about the condos. ..."

You can just about write the next chapters before they happen: police being overloaded with false alarms; Americans of Middle Eastern and Central Asian descent becoming frustrated and offended when neighbors keep reporting them for carrying "suspicious packages" into their apartments. ...

Ugly days indeed, and this is just the beginning. Meanwhile, elderly women are ordered to remove their shoes at airport checkpoints, as if the answers to our fears can be found in the past -- can be found in the events of last September -- and not in the future.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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