New Yorkers, and all Americans, can't let nightmare of 9/11 thrive

New Yorkers, and all Americans, can't let nightmare of 9/11 thrive
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Sixteen years after 9/11, New Yorkers are experiencing the flashbacks they knew would come.

This week’s terrorist attack was like that persistent nightmare that relies on sleep, even in the city that never sleeps. The inevitability broke Tuesday, in the form of urgent texts and emails to friends, relatives and colleagues, asking, “You OK?” I was in a meeting on Long Island without access to the news. It wasn’t until I read a text from my mother in Phoenix asking about the safety of my daughter in downtown Manhattan that I could try contacting her. She was fine. The attack was less 15 blocks away, either a different universe or frighteningly close, depending on perspective.

The flashbacks to 9/11 were generated by the front pages of city tabloids, the solemn voices of television news reporters, the press conference by the mayor, the governor, the police officials. In the city of miracles, from the 1969 Mets to the rebirth of a city on the brink of bankruptcy in the 1970s to Mike Piazza’s booming home run in the first game played after 9/11, we considered it a miracle that we hadn’t been hit sooner.

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But it isn’t a miracle. It was the robust and integrated array of technologies personnel and tactics largely unknown to busy New Yorkers. I saw it myself, when the House Homeland Security Committee conducted a fact-finding visit to Manhattan. In rooms that resembled sci-fi movie sets, I saw exquisite images of hard and soft targets, scanners reading license plates, dogs trained to sniff weapons of mass destruction in a knapsack, undercover assets, and highly visible demonstrations of assets surging to disrupt terrorist planning. The resources were city, state, federal, private and public.

 

My colleagues and I agreed it was the most sophisticated array of protections imaginable. For the public, they’d have to be imaginable, because they were previously guarded secrets. Standing there, I experienced a frightening irony. The larger the plot, the more likely we were to disrupt it. The smaller and simpler the plot, the more likely its success. The grim reality is that it’s easier to stop the directed than the inspired terrorist. A “lone wolf,” propelled by the malignancy of thought, can inflict the most damage with the most banal of weapons: a rented Home Depot truck and a paintball gun.

So, what now? The media is saturated with the obvious: You can’t barricade every bike path. It’s a counterterrorism game of “whack-a-mole,” in which you can fortify one place and someone can pop up in another. New Yorkers could learn the lesson of rapid recovery from Israel, which is no slouch when it comes to responding to terrorist attacks. Its former consul general to New York, Alon Pinkas, has experience in both places.

Here’s what Pinkas told me: Immediately after a terror attack, whether a suicide bomber in a cafe or on a bus, Israeli crime scene, forensics and clean-up crews follow a clear protocol. First, all onsite forensic work must be completed as quickly as possible and “yellow taped” areas are to be removed after a few short hours. Second, the scene must be cleared, cleaned and returned to normal as soon as possible. Third, all collateral damages to structures or infrastructure must be repaired instantly.

Pinkas explained, “The logic is psychological stemming from a doctrine of how to fast normalize life and prevent or shorten shock syndromes. Do not leave visible signs, do not nurture scars, do not create a gathering site. The longer the site looks like a terror attack, the more effective terrorism is. This isn’t encouraging denial and suppression but rather, is predicated on the idea of normalcy as an antidote.”

So, normalcy may be the abnormal: a psychotic individual attacks, and we quickly restore. We use the most powerful offensive and defensive tools, technology and intel, but also psychology. We don’t flashback, we move forward defiantly.

This week’s flashbacks may recede, but they await the next terrorist incident. And so must we, with a proven strategy of resilience and recovery that over the long haul, proves the futility of terror.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.