Power, Politics And People

J.J. Goldberg writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.


The Cities Aren’t Safe

During his bizarre, self-incriminating appearance on the witness stand at the close of his terrorism trial in Brooklyn federal court last month, 24-year-old Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer freely admitted nearly every accusation thrown at him by prosecutors. But not the knife.

Yes, the Hebron-born Abu Mezer said, he came here to “punish” America for supporting Israel. Yes, he built five pipe bombs from supplies he bought in a North Carolina hardware store. Yes, he wanted to kill Jews — “as many as I could take.” And, yes, he had talked with a friend about blowing up a subway line because it was frequented by Jews, though he insisted that he dropped that plan.

But when asked if a knife found in his shabby apartment was meant to “get people away from you when you blew up your bomb,” he gave a flat “No.” The knife, he said, was “just in case, for safety. New York is not a safe city, so you have to keep something with you.”

He should know. When he was arrested with a roommate in a pre-dawn raid on July 31, 1997, Abu Mezer was allegedly just hours away from setting off a cache of deadly bombs that could have killed and maimed scores of New Yorkers. Only a last-minute tip to police by a third roommate prevented catastrophe. Unsafe, indeed.

Convicted on July 23, Abu Mezer probably faces life in prison. (His co-defendant, fellow Hebronite Lafi Khalil, 23, was acquitted of the bomb charges, but convicted of immigration violations that could bring five to 20 years.)

Once sentenced, Abu Mezer will become the 20th person imprisoned in this country for plotting or carrying out deadly acts of Middle East-related terror and mayhem here, mostly in New York City. Several more suspects are awaiting trial or deportation. And one of the perpetrators killed himself on the spot.

Some of those implicated are Palestinian, others Egyptian, Sudanese, Pakistani. One is American-born. All are Moslems. Some belonged to Islamic extremist groups. Others appeared to be lone operators.

At least seven such attacks have been planned or executed since 1990, in which the primary motive appeared to be either killing Jews or “punishing” the United States for supporting Israel. The incidents include:

* The 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Toll: one dead.

* The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Toll: six dead, 1,000 injured.

* The planned 1993 bombing of four major sites in New York City, including the United Nations, FBI headquarters and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. Toll: aborted by arrests.

* The 1993 shooting spree by a Pakistani national outside Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Virginia. Toll: two dead.

* The 1994 shooting of a vanload of Chassidic students on the Brooklyn Bridge. Toll: one dead, one maimed.

* The 1997 shooting spree on the observation deck atop the Empire State Building. Toll: one dead, seven wounded, plus the shooter, dead by his own hand.

* The planned 1997 bombing of a Brooklyn subway. Toll: aborted by arrests.

Not on our list are at least 16 Arab Americans in six states — Florida, Texas, California, Illinois, Virginia and New York — under investigation or facing deportation on suspicion of gathering aid in America for overseas terrorist groups such as Hamas. Also not included are at least five Middle Easterners imprisoned here for terrorist acts against Americans abroad.

No, today’s lesson involves just one thing: the deadly war being waged by Islamic militants on American soil against Jews and their American allies.

Most of the incidents have certain common threads. Two of them, the World Trade Center bombing and the 1993 bomb plot, were the work of a single group, the followers of the blind Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. He is now serving a 240-year sentence for his role in the second plot.

Two other incidents are linked more loosely to Sheikh Rahman and his group. Kahane’s assassin, El-Sayyed Nosair, had close ties to the group. Abu Mezer apparently had Sheikh Rahman in mind when he prepared his subway bombing; a note demanding the sheikh’s release was found with the bombs in his apartment.

Standing apart are the Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building and CIA shootings. All were committed by apparent loners. Two of them, the New York shootings, were treated by police as homicides rather than terrorism. In both, there was clear evidence that the shooters wanted to show support for the Palestinian cause by shooting Jews. Both succeeded.

At the Brooklyn Bridge, a Lebanese cabbie opened fire on a vanload of Lubavitch students a day after the 1994 Hebron massacre. One student was killed, and another suffered permanent brain damage. The shooter reportedly had visited a mosque just before and after the shooting.

At the Empire State Building, retired Gaza schoolteacher Ali Hassan Abu Kamal opened fire on a crowd of tourists, killing a Danish rock musician and maiming his American Jewish bandmate. Abu Kamal left a letter in which he railed against Jews, Israel and Western imperialism.

The incidents have something else in common: They’ve failed to sink in. Except for the World Trade Center bombing, the cases received spotty press coverage in New York — still less nationwide — and have largely faded from memory. The result: each new incident appears as an isolated case rather than part of what is actually a growing series.

To a handful of Jewish activists who track the terror, the low-key reactions reflect reluctance by American leaders to face facts. Steven Emerson, an investigative journalist specializing in Islamic extremism, believes the problem is a “politically correct” unwillingness to single out Moslems. Devorah Halberstam, whose son was killed at the Brooklyn Bridge, believes Washington has purposely muted reactions, to prevent panic and to preserve public support for the Oslo peace process.

The truth may be more banal. News organizations are trained to lead with pictures of blood and gore. Bombs that don’t explode get buried inside. Outside New York, mayhem in the Big Apple tends to run together in a blur. Even the 1996 arrest in Pakistan of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing, went largely unnoticed. For most readers, it was old news.

As for those watchdogs devoted to tracking Middle East terror — from the Anti-Defamation League to Emerson himself — their eyes have been trained on the Middle East for too long to refocus readily. The landmark anti-terrorism legislation passed by Congress in 1996, after furious lobbying by Jewish organizations, ignored terrorism on these shores entirely.

Equally important, the watchdogs have good reason to downplay anti-Israel terror at home. They don’t want voters thinking too hard about the price we might be paying for America’s alliance with Israel. Better to talk of “deranged gunmen” and “anti-Western” plots.

The fact is, as long as there’s an Israeli-Arab conflict, there will be anti-Israel terrorism. It was only a matter of time before it reached these shores. Now that it’s here, there’s precious little that can be done to stop it. And it won’t stay in New York. We’ll all have to learn to live in cities that are, as Abu Mezer said, not safe.