Last week, Governor Paterson signed a bill that tells police they can no longer hold information they collect while conducting “stop and frisk” procedures. According to Commissioner Ray Kelly, that legislation may have an effect on crime in the city. Hopefully, it will not affect policing of the most serious types of crime.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism expert with an interesting past. Gartenstein-Ross, who was born in Oregon, converted to Islam when he was in college. Upon returning to Oregon, he worked for the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, an Islamic charitable foundation that has now been named a specially-designated global terrorist organization by the Treasury Department.
Gartenstein-Ross left the organization before its designation, and after some soul-searching converted to Christianity before graduating from New York University’s law school. He is now the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.
New York is always a target for terrorism, and I wondered why there have not been more attempts since September 11, 2001.
“That is the million-dollar question,” Gartenstein-Ross explained. He said that there is an average of about five Islamic terror plots in the U.S. each year, showing me some data. That figure, however, spikes to 13 in 2009.
“What is the cause of the spike?” he asks. Answering his own question, he says, “We do not really know, but there has been a change in how the federal government deals with suspicious people that can or may be terrorists.”
The city’s subway system is always a concern in law enforcement. It shuttles 3 million people in and out of the city each day. Gartenstein-Ross explained that most of the severe terrorist attacks that do occur happen through a more centralized terrorist apparatus, and the more unsuccessful attempts are often operating as independent cells and often not trained by any kind of real jihadist experts.
“How hard is it for a malcontent American to join a jihadist camp and become part of a movement like this?” I asked.
“It is not that easy for just anyone to join a professional jihadist organization, such as Al Qaeda,” aid Gartenstein-Ross. “To them, it’s like getting into Harvard; it is much sought after, and not everyone can enter. Many get turned away.”
When you speak to a person like Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, you immediately realize that the distance between those that mean us harm and we - in our insulated, pop culture-driven, sleepy daily lives - is not as wide as you might wish it to be. The people our police are constantly searching for are the hardcore professionals, the ones who are trained to do the most damage in the most numbers.
If there is a way to defer a little to the police in a situation like this, there is at least a strong argument to make in its favor. Sure, the civil libertarians will shout that this infringes on individual rights, but so does E-Z Pass, cable television, and social networking sites. They are all voluntary, but even so, there is far little abuse coming from whatever data those items render.
Gartenstein-Ross is an extremely smart man that has seen a lot in his relatively young life. I hesitated to rush into a column about this kind of subject matter because I normally write about policy initiatives. The passing of the most recent stop-and-frisk legislation, however, made me think there was a possible bridge between what the police are trying to avoid, and that for which some people 8,000 miles away are training. There is always the risk of appearing to use fear to push policy. When it comes to crime, however, fear is a realistic component. Paterson should have vetoed that bill.