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02.04.09

Cops vs. Al Qaeda

The inside story of how the NYPD transformed an ordinary police unit into the best counterterrorism force in the world. An excerpt from Securing the City.

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The winter air is cold and the light hard-edged as the unmarked New York City Police Department helicopter meanders through the winds above the five boroughs. The morning is clear in a way—in that way—that is always a little heartbreaking if you were here on September 11, 2001. There were police choppers in the New York sky then, too, but not like this one, which can see so much from so far. It is a state-of-the-art crime-fighting, terror-busting, order-keeping techno toy, with its enormous lens that can magnify any scene on the streets almost one thousand times, then double that digitally; that can watch a crime in progress from miles away, can look in windows, can sense the body heat of people on rooftops or running along sidewalks, can track beepers slipped under cars, can do so very many things that the man in the helmet watching the screens and moving the images with the joystick in his lap, NYPD Detective David Zschau, is often a little bit at a loss for words, “It really is an amazing tool,” he keeps saying. On the left screen is a map of Manhattan. He punches in an address on the Upper East Side, my address. The camera on the belly of the machine swivels instantaneously, focuses, and there on the second screen is my building seen from more than a mile away now, but also close and personal from this surprising astral angle. The cameras and sensors are locked on to it, staying with it as the chopper turns and homes in.

There is always an uneasy tension between the right to security and the right to privacy.

I am glad that I am up here looking, and not down there looked at unknowingly. There is always an uneasy tension between the right to security and the right to privacy and this morning I can feel it, can see it in bold relief as we fly only a few hundred feet above the city’s highways and avenues, parks and alleys, museums, monuments, skyscrapers, train stations, …and homes—all those homes…

What does it take to make a city safe in the 21st century? And what, in particular, does it take to secure this city, which was for so many generations a maelstrom of crime and always an inviting target for mass destruction…

As I came back to New York from years in the Middle East and Europe, what fascinated me about the NYPD was that it offered an alternative to the dangerously ill-conceived, mismanaged, and highly militarized “global war on terror” that had pushed the United States into the gruesome occupation of Iraq and helped inspire a violent loathing for Americans around the world. When [NYPD Commissioner Ray] Kelly says the acronym as a single word, “the GWOT,” it’s with a twinge of irony that makes it sound almost obscene.

Invading faraway lands is the worst and should be the last option when fighting to make ourselves safe at home in this 21st century. Having blasted our way into Baghdad to stop a terrorist threat that was largely hypothetical, Americans found themselves trapped, trying to hold together a failed state where real terrorists proliferated locally to fight globally. As the menace from organized enemies operating behind definable borders declines, the threat grows from what French criminologist Alain Bauer calls “world chaos,” the symbiotic cooperation of crime and terror mutating opportunistically and metastasizing wherever there is a weakness. The most pragmatic responses are effective diplomacy and espionage abroad, including covert action; reliable real-time intelligence on every front; and a strong police presence with solid public and, indeed, neighborhood support. “Cops are it,” the Rand counterterrorism expert Brian Jenkins wrote in 2006. “We are going to win this at the local level.”

Excerpted from Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD by Chris Dickey. ©2009 by Chris Dickey. With permission from the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Chris Dickey is Newsweek magazine's Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor. The author of five other books, including Summer of Deliverance, Dickey's Shadowland column about counterterrorism, espionage, and the Middle East appears weekly on Newsweek online. He lives in Paris and New York.

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