When Diana Dean got ready for work Dec. 14, 1999, she had no idea she would prevent one of the most horrific terrorist acts ever attempted in the United States. A U.S. Customs agent, Dean was assigned to the Port Angeles, Wash., port of entry. Every day she would check several dozen people as they entered the United States from Canada. She'd ask routine questions and sometimes check further if she thought something was amiss.
When Ahmed Ressam came to her station, she noticed he was sweating a little and avoided eye contact. She took the extra step and had Ressam's car searched. This effort resulted in the discovery of bomb-making materials that were part of a terrorist plot targeting Los Angeles International Airport. If not for Dean, Christmas 1999 would have been very different for several hundred families.
Shortly before lunch April 19, 1995, Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lieutenant Charles Hanger stopped a car for not having a properly displayed license plate. During the stop, Hanger noticed a bulge under the driver's left arm. He grabbed the bulge and told the subject to put his hands on his head. The bulge turned out to be a gun, and the subject turned out to be Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. When interviewed, Hanger humbly said, "God put me at the right spot at the right time. This man was meant to be caught and he was just out of an ordinary, routine (emphasis added) traffic stop."
At about 0400 hrs on May 31, 2003, Officer Jeff Postell of Murphy, N.C., spotted a suspicious subject while doing security checks on closed businesses. Postell had been on the job for less than a year, but he knew something was wrong and cornered the subject, detaining him until another officer arrived. The subject turned out to be murderous bomber Eric Rudolph, the subject of the longest and most intense manhunt in recent history.
Here's the point: None of these incidents involved the FBI, CIA, NSA, TSA or any other three-letter agency. Each of them did, however, rely on the commitment of front-line cops doing their job. And notice that in every case, this meant doing the routine things cops are supposed to do.
America is at war with an insidious enemy, an enemy that must integrate within our society to succeed. Those bent on destroying our nation must try to act like normal people. But they're not normal. They're sick, they're deviant and they make mistakes. One thing cops are particularly good at is finding sick deviants who make mistakes. It's what we do every day, and if we make a conscientious effort, we'll thwart other terrorist efforts.
I've marveled over the years at the difference between cops who regularly make the good busts and those who mark time as they go through their careers. I've actually made something of a study of this, and, although I don't claim to be an expert, I've come up with a pretty sound theory for why some cops are particularly effective. It comes down to two very simple things they do differently: 1) They put themselves out there and try. After all, you'll never catch a fish without throwing your line in the water, right? 2) They look as if they know there's something to be found. This is really the key. Just think how much more effective your pat downs would be if you were thinking, "I know there's a gun here somewhere," and better yet, "Okay, he had one weapon, where's the next one?" Wow, what a concept: Seek and ye shall find.
I once did a story on a man named Greg Naglich. Greg worked for the Las Vegas Metro jail and was known for finding some really serious crooks. Greg's secret was simple: He actually looked at wanted bulletins, composites and grainy bank robbery photos, and he went to work every day believing one of these guys would come his way. He scrutinized every inmate even the seemingly straightforward drunk as a potential FBI 10 Most Wanted. Even though Greg worked in a jail and not on the street, he captured more bank robbers in a year than most cops catch in a lifetime. I was impressed and realized Greg's actions were really the key to effective police work: Look as if you know there's something to be found and never go at it with the attitude that "nothing ever happens around here."
Each of the officers mentioned above could have been complacent or just explained away what they had seen. But they didn't. They engaged, and they changed the course of history. The war on terror will not end when the troops come home. We'll be in this one for a long, long time. We all have a responsibility to do our part. It's the job of the military to defend our nation's interests overseas, and our job to defend our nation's interests on the streets of America.
So here's the mission, and it's definitely not impossible: We must remain vigilant. Our families' lives depend on our actions. It's not over. --Dale Stockton, Editor