It was Sept. 14 at 9 p.m., and I was on Fifth Avenue, directly across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I was standing, that is, directly in front of the statue of Atlas holding up the world, at the entrance of Rockefeller Center. I was with my 14-year-old son. We were waiting for friends who were going to accompany us downtown to see the memorials that had sprung up in Washington Square and other places.
Our friends were a few minutes late. We waited together on the quiet, near-empty street. New York had been attacked only days before, and our city was quiet; people were home.
Suddenly to our right, on the sidewalk, we saw two “Mideastern looking men,” as we all now say. They were 25 or 30 years old, dressed in jeans and windbreakers, and they were doing something odd. They were standing together silently videotaping the outside of St. Pat’s, top to bottom. We watched them, trying to put what we were seeing together. Tourists? It was a funny time of day for tourists to be videotaping a landmark—especially when the tourists looked like the guys who’d just a few days before blown up a landmark.
We watched them. After a minute or so they finished taping St. Pat’s and turned toward where we were. We were about 20 feet away from them, and we eyeballed them hard. They stared back at us in what I thought an aggressive manner: a deadeye stare, cold, no nod, no upturned-chin hello.
They stared at us staring at them for a few seconds, and then they began to videotape Rockefeller Center. We continued watching, and I surveyed the street for a policeman or patrol car. I looked over at the men again. They were watching me. The one with the camera puts it down for a moment. We stared, they stared. And then they left. They walked away and disappeared down a side street.
Let me tell you what I thought. I thought: Those guys are terrorists.
And then I thought: Whoa, wait a minute. I must be experiencing what people experienced after Pearl Harbor, when all of a sudden they’d see a young Asian guy with a camera and get all excited. You can get paranoid. You can get unfair.
I thought: The guys I just saw weren’t breaking the law, in any case there are no cops around, and if I drop a dime to overburdened 911—“I saw two Mideastern men taking pictures!”—they’d brush me off.
So I just filed it away, as did my son.
But neither of us could shake it.
* * *
Ten days later I am to be a guest on the Oprah show, where we are going to talk about the events of Sept. 11. A car picks me up in the early afternoon at my apartment to take me to a studio in midtown where I’ll talk to Oprah in Chicago. As we drive south down Park Avenue, the driver chats with me, and he seems jumpy. “You bothered like everyone else at what’s going on?” I ask.
He says—I paraphrase—“Yeah, I am. I been feeling funny since a thing I saw the other day. I’m standing with a bunch of limos and drivers, we’re waiting outside that big building, 520 Madison. And suddenly—we’re all hanging around talking—and suddenly we see these two guys, Mideastern guys, in turbans. And they’re videotaping 520 Madison Avenue top to bottom. Right in front of us. So we look at them and they look back—and then they keep doing it! So one of our guys starts to walk toward them, and the guys with the camera got outta there quick. And I’m telling you, it gave me the creeps!”
I get to the Oprah studio, do the show, get home, call the FBI tip line. I tell them my name, what I do for a living, say I’m going to tell them something that sounds small but may be big. The FBI tip line guy is polite, takes notes, thanks me. He asks me to get the limo driver’s name, I call around, get the number of his car company. The tip line guy calls me back, takes the number, thanks me again.
I say, “You guys must be getting 1,500 tips an hour.” He says yes, but they’re all appreciated and if I see any more Mideastern looking men videotaping I should call.
I figured: They’re busy taking other, more urgent tips, this isn’t going anywhere.
Then I remembered an FBI agent I’d met in the neighborhood, tried to reach her, couldn’t get her at her office or home. I leave messages, hear nothing, figure she’s out chasing the bad guys.
Now jump to this past week. Two things happen. My son is surfing Internet chat rooms last Sunday and goes to a conservative site, where he sees an interesting thing. A man or woman has written in to say—again I paraphrase—“The oddest thing happened at work the other day. I work at a petrochemical company, and these two Mideastern looking guys come in and say they want to videotape the inside of the plant for a college course they’re taking. They were approached and asked for identification by the manager. They became surly, angry, and left. Later the manager phoned the school they claimed to be students at—and they weren’t even registered!”
My son calls to me, we read it and look at each other. I decided to call the FBI again.
But the next morning my phone rings and it is the FBI, and it seems to be a real agent, not a telephone answerer. My initial tip line report has, apparently, trickled up into the “check it out” category. Or maybe they’ve gotten enough reports like mine that a discernable pattern has emerged. At any rate, the agent asked me to go through my story and the driver’s story, and then I threw in the report on the Internet, and he gave me his name and number and asked me to call if I saw anything else.
* * *
All this, of course, has me thinking. Maybe it has you thinking, too. I will share some of my thoughts. They are not original or unusual, but I feel they should maybe be said.
Again, they are only thoughts and hunches.
I think there are a lot of “sleeper cells”—not a few, as we all hope, but a lot. I think some of them are in Queens and Brooklyn and Manhattan, and in Jersey City and elsewhere in New Jersey . Boston, too. Maybe some are in the capital or Virginia or Maryland. Maybe some of those who delivered anthrax to the U.S. Capitol took a taxi. Maybe on the other hand they took the shuttle from LaGuardia. Certainly we know some cell or cells are in Florida.
I think some cell members may not be sure what their next move is. They’re not sure of their next assignment. They haven’t been told, or they haven’t, perhaps, chosen. I think cell members have been going around taking home movies of potential targets. I suspect they’ve been downloading them into computers and shooting them off to Osama and his lieutenants in the caves. I suspect they’ve been building a video library of places they might hit over the next few months and years and decade. And I think once they take one of the targets down they’ll happily return to the scene of the crime, take a nice tourist-type videotape of the crater they made—they’ll tell the cops they want to record the brave rescue workers—and send it triumphantly home.
That’s all based on nothing but hunches.
But there are things we know. As individuals, these men—for they are men, between roughly 17 and 45, which is to say they track in terms of sex and age group American criminals in American jails—are not only “hate filled” and “evil,” though they are these things. They are also, obviously, emotionally and intellectually primitive. Their minds, if quick and highly focused, are also limited, stunted. And their young-man’s arrogance is both a strength and their potential undoing. (Young male criminals of whatever sort tend to showy arrogance, and it is often their undoing.)
And I think as we attempt to find the bad guys in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we should all be thinking a little more, as citizens, about the search going on here, in America.
The people who are trying to kill us with bombs and biological weapons are not from Canada, Chile, China, India, Ireland, Tanzania, Congo, New Zealand or the island of Jamaica.
They are from the Arab Mideast. They are not Israeli.
They are men, and not women.
They are young men. That is, they are not old men, and they are not children.
So: We know the profile of the bad guys.
I think I saw some of them that night across from St. Pat’s, and I continue to regret not confronting them, questioning them and, if I had to, tackling them and screaming for help. I could have gotten us all arrested. If they had been innocent tourists I would have apologized, begged their forgiveness and offered to buy them a very nice dinner. If they had not been innocent, I would have helped stop some bad guys.
In the past month I have evolved from polite tip-line caller to watchful potential warrior. And I gather that is going on with pretty much everyone else, and I’m glad of it. I was relieved at the story of the plane passengers a few weeks ago who refused to board if some Mideastern looking guys were allowed to board. I was encouraged just last night when an esteemed journalist told me of a story she’d been told: Two Mideastern-looking gentlemen, seated together on a plane, were eyeballed by a U.S. air marshal who was aboard. The air marshal told the men they were not going to sit together on this flight. They protested. The marshal said, move or you’re not on this flight. They moved. Plane took off.
Good news: Everything went safely and calmly. Bad news: The two men were probably Ph.D.’s from Yale on their way to a bioethics convention. They made it clear they resented being split up, and I understand their resentment, and would feel real sympathy if they told me about it. You would, too.
But you know what? I think we’re in the fight of our lives, and I think we’re going to need their patience. And I think those who have not yet developed patience are going to have to grow up and get some.
* * *
No one likes “racial profiling,” “ethnic profiling,” “religious profiling.” But I see it this way: If groups of terrorists took out two huge buildings and part of the Pentagon and killed 5,000 people and then decided to unleash anthrax and it emerged that those terrorists were all middle-aged American blond women who tend to dress in blue jeans and T-shirts and like to go by Catholic churches and light candles, I would be deeply upset not only because the terrorists had done what they’d done. I would also be upset because they were just like me! I fit their profile! I look like them! I act like them! Everywhere I went people would notice me and give me hard looks and watch what I was doing. I would feel terrible about this. But you know what else I’d do? I’d suck it up. I’d understand. I wouldn’t like it, but I’d get it, and I’d accept it.
Because under very special circumstances—and these are special circumstances—you sometimes have to sacrifice. You have to drop your burly pride a little and try to understand and be accepting and accommodating and generous-spirited.
I think we’re going to require a lot of patience from a lot of innocent people. And you know, I don’t think that’s asking too much. And when it’s not given, I think we should recognize that as odd. About as odd as videotaping a great cathedral in the dark.