(photo credit: AP)
The FBI agents and big-city police chiefs towered over the petite, slender blonde girl who scanned the suitcase's contents as they gathered around her, listening to every word of explanation. Some nodded, and some stood with their arms folded across their chests. But all 12 of the law enforcement officers, who had come here to hear about strategies for combating terror and to learn the lessons absorbed by their Israeli counterparts through trial-and-error, seemed completely focused on their mission.
"We cannot afford another September 11," said FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael Tabmen, a small gold Star of David dangling from his neck. "The war against terror is a war, here and in the States. And we will win. We will win. There is no other possible outcome."
On Tuesday morning, the delegation, organized by the Anti-Defamation League, began its morning observing the state-of-the-art security arrangements at Ben-Gurion Airport's Terminal 3. Following an in-depth briefing, the group moved out into the third-floor departures hall, teeming with passengers. Questions centered on the technical aspects of combining elegant architecture and cutting-edge security trappings.
"We changed the type of glass here," their guide said, waving his hand at the massive three-story windows at the front of the hall. "And added these vertical wires. Now, even if there was a blast, the windows are designed to break into big pieces, and those pieces will fly outside the building instead of hitting passengers inside the terminal. It was a change to the architect's plan."
The group left the airport, and returned to its minibus for the brief ride to Home Front Command headquarters in Ramle. Along the way, the special agents and seasoned police officers stared out of the windows, trying to understand their new surroundings after less than 48 hours in the country.
But it was back to business as soon as the 12 guests were seated around a table at Home Front Command headquarters. Listening to a lecture on mass-casualty events from the elite National Search and Rescue Unit, the visitors focused on specific details of site management. Delegation of authority and command-chain distribution were worked over and over, as comparisons were drawn to the bombings of tourist hotels in Sinai and the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake.
The visitors, some all too familiar with such events, nodded appreciatively when discussing the use of the ground-penetrating radar, which can "hear" human breathing or heartbeats even under rubble.
At each site that day, the officers asked question after question, exhausting their allotted time at each facility, and trying at each stop to find another few minutes for more questions.
"Do you have problems with livestock on the roads?" asked Maj. James Keathley of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, smiling a few seconds later after hearing that camels were a major cause of accidents in the south.
Many of the officers found Israel similar to their home districts. Los Angeles Police Department Chief of Operations Jim McDonnell said that Israel looked much more like Southern California than he had expected. Others said that they had expected to see a much more visible security presence, with barbed wire and armed guards everywhere.
The officers drew comparisons between Israel's experiences and their own. After speaking with Asst.-Cmdr. Avshalom Peled about the preparations for last summer's pullout from the Gaza Strip and visiting the Border Police training base at Beit Horon, three seasoned veterans of the Chicago Police Department compared the pullout with police strategies for forcing inhabitants out of condemned housing projects on Chicago's tough South Side.
A number of the visitors remarked on the emphasis placed on psychological preparation before a mission, as well as the level of concern for emergency responders' psychological well-being, drawing comparisons between that and the after-the-fact grief counseling offered in the US.
This, said ADL Washington DC regional director and national law enforcement training director David Friedman, was the goal of the program. "These individual encounters with their Israeli counterparts gives US officers hope, strength and encouragement."