2001-12-22 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

If you want to fly El-Al Airlines from an airport in Israel, you have to send your bags to the airport the day before your departure. Your baggage is opened, checked, x-rayed and checked again. When you arrive at the airport, your baggage is given to you to carry to the plane. Any bag that does not have a person attached is discarded with prejudice – that is to say, it is destroyed by the IDF, the Israeli army.

If you want to fly El-Al from New York City, you must travel from the terminal to the airplane out on the tarmac. El-Al aircraft never approach the terminal area. Your luggage will be checked three ways to Sunday and so will you.

One American journalist recently wrote an article in Newsweek magazine about how the airline rejected her and booked her a ticket on a German airline instead because she fit a terrorist profile (single woman traveling alone, often travels, has stopped in an Arab nation, only a carry-on bag, had a laptop computer that she could not turn on at the gate, etc.).

Right after the terrorist attack on September 11, an official from El-Al was interviewed.

"We have 30 aircraft and 2,000 highly-trained security agents," he told the anchorperson. "You have 2,000 aircraft and 30 partially- trained security agents. That is the difference between you and us."

What brought this up is the letter from Rob Curran decrying the lax security at King’s Plaza Mall and Kevin Boyle’s response to that letter.

Rob was unhappy because he parked his SUV right near the entrance to the mall without anybody checking on him. His contention is that anybody could have packed a jeep such as his with explosives and killed hundreds of people.

His contention is right. While nobody would have worried about something such as that on September 10, today, that is a distinct possibility.

And, while I think that the possibility of an attack on a small mall in Brooklyn is remote, a high profile hit on say, The Mall of the America’s in the mid-west might just happen sooner or later.

In fact, I believe that small-scale attacks by four or five terrorists on malls, Broadway theaters, tunnels, airport terminals, commuter buses and the like are not only a possibility, but a probability.

Where have we heard about things such as that before?

In Israel, where it happens often and where people live with terrorism as a daily fact of life and have been living that reality since 1948.

How does Israel deal with that reality? It does the best it can, posting machine-gun toting army forces around all its legitimate targets and they accept its casualties along with the fact that it will never be able to stop terrorist activity entirely.

How, after all, do you stop a man who straps explosives to his body and then walks into a nightclub or shopping mall and detonates himself? How do you stop a terrorist from parking a car on a busy street and immediately blowing himself, the car and dozens of people off the face of the Earth? How do you stop terrorists from shooting up a commuter bus on its way home from the city to a nearby suburb? How do you stop a group of travelers from opening their suitcases in a busy terminal, taking out automatic weapons and killing hundreds before they are themselves killed?

Do you stop every person who fits your terrorist profile and check them for explosives? Do you not allow parking on city streets? Do you manufacture buses that are bulletproof and send them in armed convoys into the suburbs? Do you stop each person entering an airline terminal and check his or her luggage?

When asked how the Israelis stop that kind of terrorism, the El-Al expert said, "We don’t let them get to the airport."

Is that what Curran wants? Does he truly want profiling of those who look like terrorists? Does he want armed guards at every mall entrance? Does he want body searches of people entering places such as restaurants, nightclubs and malls?

Boyle is right. There is not much you can do to stop terrorism entirely, any more than we can stop an assassin who is willing to die from killing a public official such as the President.

What we can do to cut down on terrorism is to do what the Israeli’s do; isolate them, assassinate them, make sure they don’t show up to do the deed in the first place.

That is not something that either our Constitution or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) looks upon favorably. We can understand that there are civil liberties in this nation that make us what we are. We also understand that there has to be some sort of common sense approach to fighting terrorism.

It is interesting to note the reaction of the Israeli population to constant terrorism within its borders.

A Tel-Aviv based institute did a survey on the national mood in light of the growing threat of terrorism. Its findings show just how the population is coping with terrorism.

"Contrary to expectations," the pollsters found, "the very serious terrorist attacks have not changed views among the Israeli public. A majority of Jews are less concerned about terrorism than they are about the state of the economy."

Most of the population expresses confidence that, in a long confrontation with the Palestinians, Israel would prevail, the study shows.

I have to believe that a poll done in America would find the same as the Israeli poll.

Most Americans are more concerned with the economy than with terrorism and most American would believe that we would win in a battle with terrorism.

Zev Chafets recently wrote a column about the issue for the Daily News.

"Since the start of the Palestinian uprising 14 months ago, 223 Israeli’s have been killed," he wrote. "A large number, but far fewer that the average Israeli highway death toll. Significantly, nearly half of the causalities have come at the hands of suicide bombers. The bombers have had only four big successes in 37 attacks. The army has disrupted at least that many more."

"Thirty nine bombers have died," he added. "Sure, they’re scary, but people are beginning to realize that suicide bombers are not a very effective weapon."

We in America have not yet learned that lesson, and I hope that we never have to.

I fear, however, that we will soon begin to learn that lesson only too well.

How will we react?

That is up to us, to our resolve and our commitment to both civil liberties and to common sense.


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