S.U.V. Bomb Attempt in Times Square

HERE’S THE MOST IMPORTANT DETAIL to come out so far about the failed attempt to bomb Times Square on Saturday evening, from the New York Times City Room blog:

The shutdown began Saturday when the T-shirt vendor, a veteran of the Vietnam War, saw smoke coming from a box inside a vehicle with Connecticut plates on 45th Street near 7th Avenue. The vendor notified a New York police officer on horseback, who smelled gunpowder from the vehicle.

The t-shirt vendor’s name appears to be Lance Orton, and based on his surly reaction to reporters yesterday, he seems to already be aware that his story will be glorified and distorted by the media in a quest to find a hero.

But the more important lesson is not that this gentleman is a hero. The lesson is that regular people are the single most important defense against terrorism attacks—whether they are sharing intelligence about a plot or observations about a smoke-filled S.U.V. And they should be treated that way.

The NYPD has made some creative efforts to enroll the public, including its Operation Nexus program, where officers visit businesses and workers who might be in a position to notice terrorist activity. William Finnegan’s excellent 2005 New Yorker feature about the NYPD’s counterterrorism strategy includes some details:

One morning, I met Detective Charles Enright and his partner, Sergeant Joseph Salzone, at the Peninsula hotel, in midtown. Enright and Salzone work for Cohen on Operation Nexus, the program that tracks terror-sensitive businesses. Nexus squads visit about two hundred business concerns a week. Since the program was launched, in 2002, they’ve been to more than twenty thousand. Jimmy Chin, the Peninsula’s regional director of risk management, was meeting with Enright and Salzone. The Nexus officers wore business suits, and had the intense but deferential air of high-end sales reps. Anyone writing a parking ticket would be more intimidating. They rely, essentially, on the public-spiritedness of businesspeople, whom they practically beg to alert them to anything suspicious. Chin, who is also the chairman of the safety-and-security committee of the Hotel Association of New York City, said, “The N.Y.P.D. is a huge police department that acts like a small one. In other places I go, nobody can imagine the kind of tight relationship we have here. But we’ve really changed our thinking since 9/11. I wouldn’t have given these guys my cell number before. Now they’ve got to be able to reach me 24/7.”

Here are some of the things that officers warn workers to look out for:

* Drivers who don’t want to give their keys up to parking attendants.

* Cars that look overloaded.

* Emergency vehicles, especially ambulances, that are bought or driven by regular people.

I wonder if the NYPD has enrolled t-shirt vendors in its efforts? If there is anyone who knows what is “normal” in Times Square and what is not, it is the guy who has been hawking t-shirts there for 20 years, watching the tourists for signs of interest, watching the cops for signs of belligerence, watching every damn thing for the slightest distraction that might make the day a little more profitable or a little less dull.