Lessons From Israel in Thinking About the Unthinkable

By Ori Nir

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — The twisted wreckage of a bus and the burnt-out storefront of a fast-food place. The glare of police lights bouncing off of body bags. Technicians picking though debris in full-body infection suits.

When Ralph Morten sees scenes like these, they usually are on television news reports from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or some other Israeli city where suicide bombers have struck. But the 24-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department thinks it’s only a matter of time before such scenes are broadcast from an American city.

“The first time it happens in the United States, it will be mass pandemonium,” Morten said. “People will be in a panic, as we were after 9-11, as would be expected. Our goal is to stay ahead of the curve on this and be ready to respond.”

To prepare, Morten visited Israel twice last year as a guest of Israel’s police, to learn how Israeli law enforcement agencies handle suicide bombings. He is one of a growing number of American law-enforcement officials gleaning lessons from an expertise Israelis would prefer they did not have.

Protocols based on Israel’s experience with suicide bombings have been prepared for the LAPD, with other police forces around the nation following suit. Instructions on dealing with suicide bombings are a part of the LAPD Supervisor School curriculum and recruit training; security tactics for guarding high-profile VIP events are following Israeli police techniques, and Israeli public-awareness initiatives on suicide bombers are serving as a model for similar programs in the United States.

Morten’s initial goal was to use the lessons he learned to prepare police officers and firefighters in Los Angeles to handle such bombings. Due to nationwide interest in suicide bombings among law-enforcement agencies, Morten has become a traveling teacher of sorts, sharing his lessons with approximately 5,000 police, military and fire-fighting personnel around the country.

Although he’s the most visible American law-enforcement student of Israel’s suicide-bombing response tactics, Morten is not the only one, said Marsha Halteman, director of corporate and community programs at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington, which arranged a meeting with Morten and a small group of reporters recently. Dozens of American police, intelligence and medical personnel have visited Israel, particularly following the September 11 attacks, to learn how to handle suicide bombings.

“Everybody is interested in this information,” said Morten, who devised a set of guidelines for first-responders — police officers, firefighters and paramedics — on handling a suicide-bombing crime-scene. “We are trying to get this information to whoever wants to know and needs to know, and we encourage them to use these lessons.” The LAPD now has plans to train all of its 9,000 officers in handling suicide bombings — a process that would be completed within three to four months, Morten said.

Morten refused to share details of these tactics, so as not to disclose secret operational information. He did say, however, that information he gathered in Israel allowed him to train LAPD bomb technicians on issues such as the reconstruction of crime scenes, evidence collection and the chemical makeup of bombers’ makeshift explosives. He also trained regular police officers on routines of first response to such crimes.

Using Israeli police video images, Morten produced an instructional film, which is intended — among other things — to prepare first responders for the brutal nature of bombing crime-scenes.

Morten said he was particularly impressed with the speed in which Israeli law-enforcement agencies respond to suicide bombings, coordinating an enormity of resources, personnel and equipment, sharing information, collaborating between various agencies and adjusting to the terrorists’ evolving tactics. “Nobody in the world is handling these problems like the Israelis and that’s why I asked them for their assistance. They helped us tremendously, and we have learned a lot,” he said.

One particular technique that the LAPD has adopted from Israeli police routines is the securing of VIP events such as the Emmy, Grammy and Academy Awards ceremonies. The LAPD now deploys armed checkpoints on streets leading to the event sites, seals off a perimeter of three or four blocks around the sites and sends bomb technicians to be available in case of a bombing threat. Sunday’s Golden Globes awards ceremony was described in The New York Times as taking place “on a bright sunny afternoon in an otherwise deserted section of downtown Beverly Hills, cordoned off by the police, who kept traffic snarled and crowds at bay.”

“We do it now in a way that is based on what the Israelis do,” Morten said, “and the stars love it… They actually think it’s exciting.”

The next step after training law-enforcement officers, Morten said, “is to have a program to get the public to be more aware.… We have to get the information out to people,” including information on identifying potential suicide bombers.

But getting the word out would have to be done carefully and tactfully, so as not to generate panic, Morten said. The American public is not yet ready to be exposed to the full severity of the suicide-bombing threat and its repercussions, he said.

“It’s going to have to be a step-by-step gradual [process], where our reply will have to be gauged by how often this happens,” he said. Yet, even if a public awareness program is pursued, he said, “I don’t know if the public can ever be really ready for that.”

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