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Metropolis / Snapshots From the Center of the Universe

Sometimes Second-Tier Status Is a Good Thing

November 04, 2001|JAMES RICCI

Some of the signature beauty of Southern California is visible from Jack Riley's office in Santa Monica. A wedge of the Pacific glitters to the horizon, and a row of Canary Island date palms along Ocean Boulevard waves stately fronds in time with the sea breeze. This place has another highly desirable quality, Riley believes. It's not a very likely target for a massive terrorist attack of the sort visited on New York City and Arlington, Va. (At least as of this writing it's been spared such a fate.)

Riley is a Rand Corp. researcher who has spent considerable time pondering the Los Angeles area's attractiveness to big-splash evildoers. "I just don't see the icons of power and culture out here that would make this place a logical target," he says. "What are the draws of L.A.? The beach. The weather. The outdoor lifestyle. I mean, how do you attack that?"

What L.A. may have going for it in this regard are, irony upon irony, the very qualities that make it such a low achiever as a city: its incoherence, its sprawl, its dearth of public transportation, its lack of concentration, physical, psychological or symbolic. "A weird irony," Riley calls it. "Insulation by lack of center of gravity."

To the rest of the world, L.A.'s primary association is with the entertainment industry, and you don't have to be a Muslim extremist to be galled by much of what it spews. Immediately after the atrocities on the East Coast, there were reports of major studios being in the terrorists' cross hairs. These were taken seriously enough that weeks later armed guards were still standing baleful watch every 50 feet or so on the sidewalk outside MGM's offices on Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica.

The entertainment industry, however, is as decentralized and fragmented as the city. A havoc-wreaker with a moralistic agenda "would have to have specific knowledge that they were making the fifth 'Porky's' movie on the back lot of Sony or something," Riley says. High-profile events here, as opposed to permanent landmarks, might have the greatest appeal to terrorists, Riley says. The decision to cancel the Emmys last month was a wise one. The Oscars also would seem a logical target, and so might next January's nationally televised Rose Bowl game, which will decide the collegiate football championship.

If some local shortcomings mean a dearth of juicy terrorism targets, others might make us uniquely resilient should terrorists strike anyway. Our long history of natural disasters, for example.

In a new study for the California Office of Emergency Services, Riley and Rand associate Jamison Jo Medby noted that the state's vital infrastructure was designed and built to withstand earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides and other typical California calamities. The infrastructure thus has "robust capabilities," Riley says, "to withstand traditional terrorism. A single truck bomb is not going to bring down the electrical grid."

In addition to this, the region's emergency services are possibly the country's most experienced in handling a variety of disaster-induced disruption. Moreover, the region's many police, fire and public health departments have long since learned how to coordinate their activities in the face of potentially catastrophic events.

Aware of the endemic jurisdictional fragmentation, L.A. County officials began as early as 1996 to assemble representatives of the various agencies to work together to head off and respond to acts of terror. The result was a Terrorism Working Group that oversees anti-terror planning and training, and a Terrorism Early Warning Group (TEW) that gathers intelligence on terrorist activity and coordinates emergency response.

In 1998 TEW correctly predicted that a rash of anthrax hoaxes would spread to L.A., and it dealt with seven such incidents within 10 days in December of that year. TEW has developed playbooks to guide emergency workers in contending with biological and chemical terrorism and attacks on the water distribution system. It is working on similar plans for radiological and nuclear terrorist attacks. Last year, the federal advisory panel that evaluates the nation's capability to respond to such terrorist assaults reported that "Los Angeles responders were further along in the planning and training than most other metropolitan areas" and recommended wide emulation of their ways.

Not even the brains at Rand can divine all the devilment that postmodern terrorists might be plotting. The uncertainty makes for a new sense of dread here and sobers the famously adolescent, narcissistic L.A. mentality. For once it's good to feel inconspicuous, good to be second-tier, comforting to think we might actually have prepared for the future instead of rushing heedlessly into it.

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