Born on the Fourth of July

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE AT LAX. ON THE FOURTH OF July the "up" escalator at the Tom Bradley International Terminal was broken, a seemingly permanent civic gesture that forced one harried crew of flight attendants to trudge up its frozen steps with luggage in hand. What the women found at the top level was a tableau vivant reminiscent of Moscow's Sheremetevo airport -- weary crowds either anxiously pressing forward toward men waving clipboards and bullhorns, or dejectedly sprawled on the ground, inured to the noise around them.

It was now nearly eight hours since Hesham Hadayet had fired his Glock into the chest of El Al ticket agent Victoria Hen and then killed Yaakov Aminov, before an Israeli guard returned the favor. Most of the planes were on the tarmac ready to go, but their passengers had been moved out of the Bradley Terminal and were only being selectively called back to check in and eventually board. Was this just another panicky LAX shutdown or a glimpse of air travel from now on?

"It was completely chaotic," a young British woman named Jenny complained of LAX's emergency game plan. "No one could move, there was shouting and confusion and, frankly, it gives you no faith in LAX." Jenny stood with a knot of Americans who'd been waiting two hours to catch their British Airways flight to London.

"They don't know what the hell they're doing," a middle-aged American woman added. "They just keep pushing different groups of people from one part of the terminal to another."

"Then there's the bomb threat, which is unrelated," Jenny whispered, indicating the parking structure across the street that was teeming with cops. "That's why they're not allowing anyone to park there."

"And why they have snipers on the roof," added a young male traveler.

Jenny whirled around and saw the group of sharpshooters, their rifles pointing skyward.

"Oh my God!" she gasped. "They've been here all this time and I didn't notice!"

Jenny thought the British Airways staff had performed just swell amid the anarchy that swirled around her. She had come to the States 10 months ago -- on 9/11, in fact. "I must say," she continued, "Heathrow was amazingly organized that day -- of course, the planes hadn't crashed into London."

"That's your British pride talking," cracked one of her fellow passengers.

About 20 feet away a small squad of Aer Lingus employees shepherded the airline's passengers into one manageable group. The Irish carrier's young men were proud of the order they were establishing in their small perimeter. One of them, Matthew, had been here since 1:30. He'd had the day off but came in on his own.

"Look around you," he said in a light brogue. "We're here -- no one else is around. British Airways is nowhere!" As he and his colleagues returned to business, the evening's only recurring announcement to be broadcast over the P.A. system came on again:

"Attention passengers! You are not required to give money to solicitors!"

When night fell the horizon lit up with fireworks, official and illegal; soon the smell of burnt Roman candles fired from a hundred back yards hung over the Century Freeway heading out of the airport.

THE NEXT MORNING IT WAS MEN IN BLACK III, AS THE FBI HELD a news conference at the Westwood Federal Building. The rest of the country was already forgetting the LAX shootout, which had been replaced by Ted Williams' death as the lead story in the national media.

Bureau spokesman Matt McLaughlin displayed two new color blowups of Hadayet, the kind of stiff DMV photos that always scream DEAD MAN when published or broadcast.

McLaughlin, and later, special agent Richard Garcia, did not have a lot to add to what had already been disclosed about the Egyptian immigrant who lived in Irvine. The assembled reporters nevertheless made Garcia rehash the stuff about Hadayet's troubled family life, that Koranic bumper sticker on his apartment door and whether he was a terrorist or a hate criminal. Garcia denied that LAX had received any bomb threats following the shooting and, referring to the two conflicting birth dates that had been reported for Hadayet, said, "We're going with July fourth."

McLaughlin, in a follow-up Q&A, noted that even if the El Al guard had pumped a round directly into Hadayet's heart, the attacker would have been able to go on for another 20 seconds and, in fact, had continued to fight after being shot in the stomach. The reporters liked that detail.

The press conference had not been especially crowded and most of the media were local. As improbable as it had first seemed, Hadayet's action was apparently not connected to a wider terrorist plot and the rest of the national media had accordingly moved on. Obviously Hadayet had specifically targeted El Al, but at the end of the day he was just another disgruntled Californian who had gone postal.

Predictably, some commentators have been howling that the shooting exposed a big gap in airport security -- namely, that people aren't screened for weapons until they are already inside terminals. This "discovery" has both an ominous and absurd ring to it, for it implies that airports can -- and therefore, should -- be made more secure by screening passengers before they even enter the terminals. If so, why not search people at all the parking lots or at the very entrance to the airport? This line of questioning will eventually move security checkpoints ever outward until metal detectors and screeners will have to be posted on Sepulveda Boulevard.

Before the stampede to childproof LAX gets to this point, we should remember that there is nothing special about airport ticket counters that makes them more important than ticket windows at Greyhound stations, baseball stadiums or Social Security offices. The al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center by flying airliners into them, not airline ticket counters. We may never learn Hadayet's deadly motives, but it's unlikely that his goal was to blast his way to a jet and fly off with it.


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