How Many Warnings Will We Ignore?

The 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots passed with the usual civic crapola from highly placed persons. President Bush turned up at the First African Methodist Episcopal Renaissance Center in South Central Los Angeles to utter such inane pieties as: “I firmly believe God is on the side of justice and reconciliation, but as Martin Luther King said, ‘God isn’t going to do it all by Himself.'”

His nibs went on to tell his audience that “out of this violence and ugliness came new hope.” Like hell it did. Nothing came out of the violence except dead people, lots of ’em, 54 of ’em, of whom 26 were African-American, 14 Hispanic, nine white and two Asian. Not that some wisdom and understanding might not have come out of this lugubrious anniversary. There is much to be learned from it, but it won’t be learned from the likes of George Bush and those depressing Democrats who seem to be lining up to run against him.

The first difficulty with profiting from this disaster is finding a reliable source of information, but one does exist in the form of a book entitled Official Negligence by Lou Cannon, published five years ago by Times Books. Mr. Cannon is one of the very best journalists of his time, a political agnostic of unsurpassed accuracy whose books on Ronald Reagan have not been superseded. Until something better comes along, Official Negligence should also be relied on as the definitive work on the L.A. riots. I draw on it for what follows.

The first thing Mr. Cannon disposes of is the shocking video of white LAPD officers beating the stuffing out of African-American Rodney King. That tape was played ad infinitum in Los Angeles and around the world. For those who could stand to look at it, the conclusion was inescapable: Those police officers were sadistic race-haters of the worst water. High and low, people of every estate based their opinions of the event in Los Angeles on that tape, which seemed to show cops being everything no cop should ever be. Thus, when the four officers tried for beating Mr. King were acquitted, countless millions were dumbfounded. “Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video,” then–President Bush had said. “Those civil-rights leaders with whom I met were stunned, and so was I, and so was Barbara, and so were my kids.” Also stunned and enraged by the tape were the men and women who touched off the riot at the intersection of Florence and Normandie.

The hitch is that the video which the world saw had been edited, snipping out a vital 13 seconds which showed a bull-snorting Rodney King attacking the cops with such menace that the subsequent beating suffered by him was susceptible to a very different interpretation. From the time the editing became public knowledge, it has been gospel among some conservative groups that what we had here was yet another example of the liberal media putting the cops and white people in the worst possible light.

Mr. Cannon comes to a different conclusion. His reporting leads him to say that the tape was edited for commercial, not political, motives. The TV people wanted the bloodiest, the most crisply vivid, most shocking, most viewer-sexy slice of tape they could put on the air. The distortion of the facts was done not for politics, but for money.

Would that it had been done for politics. If that were the case, we could correct for it whenever we see a piece of action footage; but when they do it for money, there’s no guessing what they’re leaving out. There’s no way to correct for it, and on the 10th anniversary of the riot that’s a valuable lesson, especially given all the action in the Terror War crowding our TV monitors. Are they sensationalizing the coverage? We await another Lou Cannon to go back over what’s being done and tell us-but then the one thing we can be sure of is that TV’s pursuit of the buck is no less ardent now than it was in 1992 Los Angeles.

The Cannon book speaks directly to Sept. 11 and events subsequent to that little piece of mass murder. The city of Los Angeles was repeatedly warned to be ready for the worst if the four officers being tried for police brutality were acquitted. The judge even held up making the jury verdict public for two hours to give the city and the LAPD time for precautionary measures, but none were taken. The U.S. government had nearly 10 years’ warning that the World Trade Center was a target. It had tried and convicted members of a conspiracy which had already attempted and all but succeeded in blowing the place up once before. It had memos warning of terrorists planning to hijack airplanes. And yet the authorities were caught flatfooted the day of disaster.

Is it that nobody believes a soothsayer? Our people are warned, they’re told it’s going to happen, and yet they’re unable to parry the blow. It happened at Pearl Harbor more than 60 years ago, in Los Angeles 10 years ago and last year in New York. Or is it that they’re swamped by too many warnings? That’s the excuse we’ve been hearing of late, but shouldn’t it be the duty of the intelligence services to sift out the real from the phony? They tell us they do; they tell us we don’t appreciate the number of plots they foil and disasters they avert. But it’s not good enough-not when failure results in a Los Angeles riot or the destruction of the W.T.C.

Mr. Cannon explains that among the reasons for the LAPD’s failure was the belief, based on the city’s experience with the 1965 Watts riot, that mass violence is a nighttime phenomenon, that there are no daytime riots, and thus police planned to mobilize after the sun went down. The riot broke out in the afternoon and went on for hours before sunset. In like manner, the federal people were ready for every kind of plane hijacking except the kind that occurred on Sept. 11. Who would have thought that the terrorists would be suicide bombers? Anybody who’d been reading about the suicide bombers in Israel might have considered the possibility.

For hours after the riot began, the mayor and the chief of police were both invisible; the same for George W. Bush in the hours after the airplanes demolished the W.T.C. You wouldn’t think somebody would have to explain to men and women in such positions that, even if they’re too scared or befuddled to do anything else, they must show themselves in the hour of crisis, even if their bodyguards are telling them it’s dangerous.

Mr. Cannon’s account of the lack of training, the wrong kinds of equipment and, above all else, the failure to coordinate and use large numbers of police from nearby law-enforcement organizations who were ready and anxious to help, is a thrice-told tale. We see it in nearly every disaster, and we certainly saw it when the anthrax attack or whatever it was burst on us. What the real response to the W.T.C. was, we can’t know. There is so much secrecy and, for aught we know or don’t know, so many lies, propaganda and-what is the phrase? “Strategic information”? Even so, we’ve learned how poorly the F.B.I. was doing its job, for all the thousands on its payroll and the billions in appropriations.

After the four Los Angeles policemen were set free by a state jury, they were indicted and tried again. The Fifth Amendment forbids trying a person for the same crime over and over again. In the case of the four cops, it was the cheapest and quickest way the Bush administration could placate black and liberal opinion. Why they should bother, since they never had a chance of getting those votes, is beyond understanding, but they did-and by so doing, took an important step toward the abrogation of double jeopardy. Nowadays, they can and they do try you over and over again for the same crime. They keep doing it till they get you, and that is another topic that was worthy of discussion on the 10th anniversary. There are many more to be found in Mr. Cannon’s book, and if they got skipped, there will be more anniversaries and more horrible events to memorialize. Perhaps then we can speak of that which we do not speak of now. How Many Warnings Will We Ignore?