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Terror, Tragedy And Turmoil: Reflections on Terrorism
Author: John Christopher Fine
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2002 issue.
"I don't know what else I'd expect them to be doing," a police officer said. The officer brought bags of sandwiches downtown. "This is good food donated by a Four Star restaurant," she told a Salvation Army canteen worker with whom she left the bags. I hitched a ride out of the World Trade Center area in her police car. Driving the wrong way along deserted, grit covered one-way streets, we reached Greenwich Village
"Look she's sunbathing topless," I commented as we passed a small park where youths were playing basketball and life in the village was going on as it normally did. The observation provoked the officer's comment, "They've got us directing traffic. I want to get in there and help." The policewoman dropped me off at 14th Street. Police lines formed there, south of which only residents with ID and emergency personnel could venture
It was like that in war. In Viet Nam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Africa, Afghanistan, Central America, any war or revolution I've seen, there is nothing but horror and holocaust. A short distance outside of it there is a bizarre and incongruous peacefulness, people going about frivolous amusements and pleasures.
Americans did not stop routine day-to-day life because of events at the southern end of Manhattan. Surreal television broadcasts of instant news showed politicians standing like monkeys in front of news cameras, each moving from behind the other to be sure to be seen. The continual replay of the explosions and mayhem captured attention for a time while politicians spoke in platitudes fielding vapid questions with meaningless answers.
The scene at the World Trade Towers had an aspect of a Hollywood movie set. Extras moved about, relaxing, eating, socializing, parading from one place or another while people on camera did their work. There were too many people, too many doctors and nurses, too many police and few, too few miracles. That life could survive the implosion of two 110-story buildings crumbled into heaps of rubble would require a miracle. Very few would survive the collapse of buildings 1350 feet tall.
Layers of concrete dust covered everything. Papers, once the work of lawyers, bankers, investment counselors and merchants littered fire escapes and stairwells. Computer boards were ground under the boots of firemen carrying axes and pry bars into the mass of twisted girders. Metal facades of the Twin Towers stuck up like eerie fingers, twisted shards, sharp and dangerous, everywhere.
One worker had a finger amputated in the twisted debris. Other rescuers searched for gloves that would protect their hands. The noise of high-pitched back-up alarms on loaders was eventually ignored as workers braved the dangers to get into the ruins.
The scene was not without humor. Without humor the human being ceases to be human. O'Hara's Pub on Cedar Street, a block below Liberty Street, with a soot covered sign, had its once stately entrance door ajar. Clearly taking in the scene in a moment, one in a line of city police officers marching past the pub, called out "Sergeant, can I go in there to use the toilet?”
In front of what was once the World Financial Center, a fancy black Mercedes Benz, its highly polished body smashed and twisted, had its otherwise undamaged trunk lid popped open. Inside the trunk were boxes of expensive Cuban cigars. The boxes were empty with their lids closed, tempting more than one fireman to pause to see if any were left by cigar aficionados who passed by previously.
"Take a piece of paper or a business card," a COBA (Corrections Officers Benevolent Association) delegate said. She brought food to City corrections officers working at the scene. "It will be a souvenir so I won’t forget this," she added, innocently. It is not a scene anyone once there, will ever forget.
I investigated and prosecuted terrorist bombers in New York City. It was a time when their acts were lauded by elements in our society who influenced politicians and judges to treat as expressions of political power acts of sheer violence criminal conduct.
One terrorist, convicted after trial, responsible for a series of bombings in Manhattan and elsewhere, his confession tape recorded after I gave him the Miranda warnings, was sentenced by a liberal judge to a maximum of three years. He was out with time served despite the fact that evidence showed he was part of a cell network of sophisticated terrorists.
Other bombers were pitied by juries who could not decide their fate, juries who brought their private passions into the deliberation room. It is the way then and now, to vote politics rather than obey sworn duty. Upon conviction after a second trial, only mild sentences were meted out although it was clear the defendants were inveterate felons who could not be corrected by a correction system.
Some cases I prosecuted involved department store terrorists whose use of incendiary bombs in crowded stores created a reign of terror in New York City that resulted in injury and mayhem. These defendants were given light prison sentences; it was an age of permissiveness when politics determined justice.
From the terrorist standpoint, attacks on civilian targets like the World Trade Center are political acts. Perpetrators are heroes, martyrs in their own society, perhaps even heroes among elements of American society. In their twisted reckoning, they are paid lobbyists. While their stated enemy counterparts lobby US politicians with cash and favors, the terrorist is paid with salvation. Hate is wrong in any society. Religious fervor is evil when manipulated by ungodly men.
What I learned as a teen, working as a medical missionary in a war torn African country, remains poignant in my memory. I escaped a war-ravaged place along the Congo River just in time. Mercenaries brought native troops aboard a riverboat I was able to board. Told I would disembark with them when they landed down river and act as their medical officer since their doctor had been killed, I knew protest at that time would probably mean death
One French mercenary was a psychotic killer. The look in his eyes spoke for his coldness. He nearly shot a man to death in my presence. Only a stupid French joke I cracked made him smirk and shove the pistol back into its holster. The smirk turned toward me.
"I can create a revolution in any country," the mercenary said. "With six men I can poison the water, kill livestock with disease, destroy dams and power stations and burn forests. Then you will have anarchy. Then revolution. I can do it in any country. Even yours."
The devastation in lower Manhattan was caused by only a few. The politics of the thing has changed since I prosecuted bombers and terrorists, had my life threatened, then saw guilty get off lightly with hardly anyone caring except their victims.
From the vantage point of my involuntary encounter with mercenaries to a witness of many wars while in government service to the prosecutor of terrorist bombers in New York City, I recognize a new advantage political terrorists have. The sacrifice by martyrdom of believers.
Terrorists vote with their lives. Behind these causes are intellectuals whose black motives and dark, evil designs can create revolution, disrupt world peace and destroy the harmony of human decency perpetrating hatred instead of love.
John Christopher Fine is a former New York Assistant District Attorney and counsel to the US Senate. Considered a foremost authority on organized crime and political corruption, Fine, a lawyer in private practice, continues to act as a government consultant and author of magazine articles on law enforcement and crime issues.