[fighting terror, nypd-style]

Topic: United States

For anyone with more than a passing interest in either New York City or the war on terror, this week’s New Yorker has an article you don’t want to miss (unfortunately not online, but additional Q&A here) on how Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has remade the New York Police Department to defend the city against terrorism.

As author William Finnegan tells it, the NYPD has become a model organization in the fight against terror, developing a wide range of strategies and a complex network of information gatherers the world over, all while avoiding histrionics and bringing down the NYC crime rate more generally.

Among other things, the NYPD has managed to hire (or transfer to anti-terrorism and intelligence units) officers who come from the same places as the terrorists, so it has a surprising number of speakers of Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and other languages spoken in the Middle East, Central Asia and beyond. Though the article doesn’t say so, my guess is that this is because the CIA and FBI are seen by many Muslim immigrants as tools of the federal government’s assault on the Muslim world, while the NYPD is seen as a force that protects the immediate communities where many Muslim immigrants live. And because New York cops spend their days enmeshed in the fabric of our multi-ethnic city, the department has taken very naturally to the need to understand the sociopolitical complexities of the Muslim world: it’s not all that different, really, from trying to figure out Italian mob connections, the social patterns behind Irish gangs, the inner workings of the Chinatown or Russian mafias, or any other insular immigrant community that needs policing.

Another important effect of the NYPD’s approach is to make the distinctions between Muslims in general and Islamists in particular a lot clearer to the people fighting against terrorism. Here’s a key passage that shows what I mean:

“We’ve been doing instruction on Islam for the N.Y.P.D.,” [Lieutenant John Rowland, the director of regional training for the counterterrorism bureau,] said. “It’s needed. We’ve got a lot of Catholics in this department.” (I had already noted, in a restroom at the facility, a well-thumbed copy of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam.”)

[Captain Hugh] O’Rourke said, “We’re trying to get our analysis influenced with the proper cultural perspective, because we’re a long way from southwest Asia. Some of our officers were born there, though.”

“Pashtun tribesmen, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Farsi-speakers, Filipinos, Chinese — you name it,” Rowland said. “They’ve been tremendously helpful. One guy here just made his hajj.”

This is an approach that is sorely lacking in the rest of our government, particularly the Pentagon. New York City should be a model that is followed nationally.