Jewish World Review April 16, 2004 / 26 Nissan, 5764
Shake them apple trees, Dick
In 1997, three men in a Brooklyn shack two from Jordan who identified themselves as Palestinian and one from Egypt were days away from blowing up New York's "A" subway train as an audition for membership into Hamas. But their new roommate, who in his few days in the country found Americans to be "nice" and so became confused why his roommates wanted to blow them up, flagged down a police car on a Brooklyn street an hour before midnight on July 29. Mohammed Chindluri couldn't speak a word of English, so he played charades with the officer while repeating "Bomba! Bomba!" Rather than ignore the wildman, the officer chose to follow up. Police stormed the Park Slope shack that Chindluri led them to at dawn, shooting the suspects as they reached for the detonator.
High-ranking investigators said the intended attack had the makings of a suicide mission, and it was meant to hit the Atlantic Avenue station, which the New York Times described as "a commuting nexus that includes 10 subway lines and a Long Island Rail Road terminal."
Despite all the congratulations exchanged between the mayor and the police department after the attack had been successfully averted and the police do deserve credit for looking into the claims of the crazed, gesticulating little man from the Middle East the fact remains that the only reason we weren't attacked in July of 1997 was Chindluri's change of heart (he was supposed to help coordinate the attack). In other words, pure luck. After all, the deliveries of explosives that were taking place by truck regularly to the Brooklyn shack on a route in plain sight of police went unnoted.
Last week, in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told a similar story regarding the United States' preparedness for possible attacks during the millennial new year. In contrast to Richard Clarke's testimony, Rice reminded us that it wasn't a coordinated effort of "shaking of the trees" that averted millennium attacks planned for December of 1999, but a vigilant customs inspector. It turns out that the border patrols weren't even on alert, as Clarke claimed they'd been. It was the alertness and the actions of a customs agent at the Canadian border, named Diana Dean, and her team that set things into motion and stopped Ahmed Ressem, who was transporting explosives.
The thwarted millennium attack, together with the 1997 incident, points to just how randomly our security apparatus often functioned prior to the current administration's reorganizing of our intelligence system. Even an early 2002 Washington Post article that took a hard look at the Bush Administration's counterterrorism efforts stated that in the 1990s more than just Ressem's LAX plot was "stopped by improbable good fortune….The millennium year marked its start with al Qaeda plots…to mount synchronized strikes on airports in Boston…and on American tourists in Jordan." Indeed, it's a miracle that we've been attacked on our soil as infrequently as we have been.
It wasn't until the first large-scale attack from the Middle East within our borders actually succeeded that the American public lifted an eyebrow. Our false sense of security, buttressed by a complacency abetted by the 1990s economic well-being, was evident from a USA Today headline that appeared shortly after 9/11: "WTC Widows: A Quiet Fury." The article mentioned a common sentiment among the women: "I thought it couldn't happen here."
Why not? Did they think that the targets of the terror training camps in the Middle East featured in countless documentaries for more than a decade were somewhere on Pluto? Or that the trainees were just keeping themselves busy?
Just as when the daily but prevented suicide bombings in Israel are referred to among the media and the public as "periods of calm," here too, common logic seems to go: prevented attack equals no attack attempted. We seem to be dismissive of catastrophes that are narrowly and randomly averted like those of 1997 and 1999.
If the American public wants a commission assigning blame to someone other than those who perpetrated the attacks of September 11, it can turn its pointing finger inward. Our security apparatus of the 1990s was a reflection of the less than vigilant public it was protecting. It was an era during which something called Chinagate elicited mere shrugs, an era when terror attacks against the U.S. led to no response and no demand for response, an era of zero interest overall in foreign policy and national security, and an era that was content with a president who refused to meet with his intelligence chief and who in 1992, according to writer David Halberstam, cavalierly interrupted Rep. Lee Hamilton now chairing the 9/11 Commission when the latter said, "Well, Mr. President, we have China. Whatever you do in China, you're only going to please half the people. Then there is Saddam Hussein "
The president-elect's interjection? "Lee, I've been traveling around our country for a year and no one cares about foreign policy other than about six journalists."
The common wisdom that elected Bill Clinton that year was that we didn't need George H. Bush anymore, because the Cold War was won and the Republicans had put themselves out of business. What was needed now was nationalized health care.
As Rice said in her testimony, nothing less was being done under Bush's watch than was being done under Clinton's watch. Everything that was being done continued to be done as additional measures were being evaluated. This not only leaves hollow Richard Clarke's blaming of an administration that demoted him while crediting one that didn't, it also implicates those people who today are eager to point fingers after the fact.
Even now, post-9/11, the same people accusing the Bush Administration of not preventing the attacks want to deny it the very tools it needs to prevent future attacks, such as the Patriot Act.
Perhaps the ultimate good of this commission will be to expose for their own culpable complacency those who are using the inquisition for political ends, as well as to expose the ignorance of all of us who relied on protection from a system that had been crippled since long before the first eight months of 2001.
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JWR contributor Julia Gorin tours with Right Stuff Comedy and performs in the monthly New York-based show Republican Riot. Send your comments by clicking here.
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