|Photo by Devin Ascher|
You don’t have to be a Fallujan to feel uncomfortable watching
helicopter gunships descend on your city amid deafening reports of live automatic
weapons fire and rising plumes of flash-bang grenade smoke. Unless, like the
crowd that gathered on bleachers at a Staples Center parking lot last week to
watch a tactics demonstration by the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s departments,
you’re in law enforcement.
“Beautiful,” said Abdallah Mssika of the Tanzania Police
Force, squinting as a couple of helicopter-borne snipers inflicted justice on
a pair of balaclava-clad terrorists standing on a nearby roof. As the light
poles wagged in the rotors’ wake and the crowd shielded its eyes from flying
debris, the terrorists (mannequins, actually) offered scant resistance. A few
shots rang out, and then they gave a slow, Oscar-worthy descent to the ground.
Like many of the 14,000 delegates attending the annual conference of the International
Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) last weekend, Mssika was sickened with
envy. “We are not nearly so well-equipped,” he said, shaking his head.
“The threat has been reduced,” assured deputy chief
of police Mike Hillman through his microphone. The thousand-strong crowd applauded
as the helicopters beat their harpylike retreat, then surged forward to assess
the damage, meet the heroes and climb inside the armored vehicles and helicopters.
But a pair of Swedish gentleman in suits hung back, seemingly repulsed.
“In Sweden, it’s too big, too military,” said Willis
Alberg, a police superintendent in his native country, offering his preferred
approach to a hostage crisis. “We will make the criminal tired and hungry,
and then we start to negotiate.”
But the Swedes were in the minority. The crowd again cheered when
LAPD Chief William Bratton took the mike: “We hope you’ve gotten some sense
as to why Sheriff Baca and I think we have the two best jobs in the world,”
The convention that culminated in this display of special effects
and wonder had begun, appropriately enough, with a group tour of Universal Studios.
Apparently, a few days in Los Angeles can leave even the most stalwart enforcer
of the law starstruck. “It’s the closest I’ll ever come to being a movie
star,” said a beaming John Ashcroft as the newly resigned attorney general
addressed the convention in the proud and slightly weepy tones of a Little League
coach at season’s end. Still, there was some serious discussion going on in
such seminars as “Keeping Good People Good,” “Preparing for the
Use of Force During a Demonstration” and “When the Media Is Unfair.”
Ashcroft himself weighed in on the last topic: “I was amazed when The
New York Times ran a headline last week that said, ‘Despite Drop in Crime,
an Increase in Inmates.’ Well, duh!”
In a seminar billed on the IACP Web site as “Policing in
an Emergency [sic] Democracy: Post-Hussein Iraq,” Iraq police consultant
and Order of the British Empire member Douglas Brand offered a sobering reminder
that not all of the convention attendees’ colleagues were having so much fun.
Following a moment of silence for the fallen, and 30 minutes of candid criticism
of the impossible demands placed by coalition governments on the Iraqi police
and their foreign trainers, Brand projected a slide photo of a donkey. The animal,
he said, had towed a cart used in an insurgent’s rocket attack on Baghdad’s
International Zone: “A colleague of mine said, ‘At least we found one of
the weapons of ass destruction.’”
The mood was considerably lighter on the exhibition floor among
the cool toys: disco-worthy displays of sirens, potato-gun-like Less Lethal
Launchers, trading cards for cops and their bomb-sniffing dogs (“Vannah
helps protect American one sniff at a time”), garishly color-coded handcuffs
(yellow for felon, orange for recidivists, red for Hannibal Lecter), and a best-uniform
contest. My favorite exhibit was a Northrop-Grumman-manufactured satellite-map
touch-table operated by waving one’s hands over it, not unlike the holographic
display used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report. One could route parades,
contain riots and assess the aftermath of nuclear explosions. The $250,000 price
might seem steep, but salesman Mark Whitman saw a new willingness to pay it.
“Oddly,” he reported, “we haven’t had much sticker shock.”
The weirdest pigeon at the Pageant of Pigeons looked just
like a regular pigeon but had, stuck to its back, a swath of curly feathers
— curly like carrot rosettes or frisée lettuce or Diana Ross’ hair. It
has taken thousands upon thousands of generations of selective breeding to achieve
this pigeon. It would not survive in the rough-and-tumble world of actual nature.
Though here, tonight, among thousands upon thousands of his fancy brethren at
the Orange Show Fairgrounds in San Bernardino, he was getting along quite well.
It was late on the night before the big opening day of the Pageant
of Pigeons, and people closely affiliated with the show, the judges, the breeders
and the wives of breeders, were setting up, checking cages or generally fussing
with their birds. The first thing you noticed (aside from the pigeons) was a
layered crrooo-crrooo-crrooo-crrooo sound like deep white noise. It was the
quality of sound that would either put you into an immediate state of profound
relaxation or drive you mad. I found it relaxing. I wandered up and down the
rows of Strawberry balds, Opal laces and Red mottles soaking up bits of conversation.
“He wanted to name that damned thing Bob and then Timmy Bob
and then Timmy Bob Two,” said a man in denim overalls.
“That’s his sister,” said another man, pointing to a
pigeon with a brisk crownlike tuft of head feathers. “And that’s his sister
and that’s her mother.” All three pigeons looked exactly identical.
Eventually I ran into one of the men in white coats affixed with
official-looking embroidered badges. Leon Stephens was past president of the
Los Angeles Pigeon Club. “There are pigeons with feathers on the nose,
or over the head like a hat,” he told me. “There are pigeons with
long beaks, with curls on their chest. There are robust utility birds bred specifically
for the purpose of eating. There are Pouters whose ornamental air sacs blow
up with a puff of air. There are others that turn somersaults. Those are the
Tumblers. They fly into the air and flip themselves over like yo-yos. Nobody
knows why or what causes it. But they seem to enjoy it. There are others bred
for flying stamina, like the racing homers. There are lots of famous pigeons,”
he said. “Take the pigeon named GI Joe. He delivered a message that saved
the lives of an American troop that was pinned down in one of the World Wars.”
The racing homer is the super-athlete of the pigeon world. It
is bred, fed and trained to fly as fast as it can for as long as it can, and
the record is something like halfway around the world in 15 hours. When I asked
President Stephens which pigeon was his favorite, he stopped to think. If he
were a pigeon, I guessed, he would be a gray Monk or a brown Priest.
“I like the Saxon color pigeons,” he answered solemnly.
“Something about the color and white bars on the wings fascinates me. You
can just about fall in love with them. When you’ve been working on a bird, when
you see that it’s got nice feathers, in a good condition and you’ve made some
advancements,” he sighed. “Like Freud says, it’s probably a sexual
The next day I brought along my friend James. James and I had
met online. In the olden days, our largely epistolatory e-mail relationship
would have been conducted entirely via homing pigeon. It took us an hour to
get to San Bernardino from Pasadena, but a racing homer could have probably
done it in 20 minutes. I relayed what President Stephens had said about the
“why” of pigeon fancy: You come home and go out to your pigeon house
at night. You play with your birds. You talk to them and they don’t talk back
to you. You hold them. You examine them. It’s relaxing. James looked skeptical.
As we talked, a woman with an English Trumpeter clutched in a death grip bumped
us on her way to the judging booth. “Pigeon people,” I said, “are
“Sure,” said James, “if by ‘intense’ you mean ‘crazy.’”
Then he scooted away to take a picture of three birds underneath a sign hand-markered
with the words “Black cocks.” I bent to have a closer look at several
spotted pigeons the size of geese. Pigeon fanciers, Stephens had said, were
artists. “We are doing biological art. Our talent lies in making living
creatures express certain characteristics.” I was parsing the ramifications
of this Frankensteinian approach when James returned. “That was
either a two-headed pigeon, or a pigeon sitting really close to another pigeon,”
he said. His eyes were wide and his shirt was covered in small curls of cedar
shavings. Somewhere nearby, a bird that sounded suspiciously like an owl but
was undoubtedly a pigeon began to hoot.