Speed of arrest in Times Square bomb attempt draws parallels to TV's '24'

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; 3:49 PM

In an era when television is often ahead of reality, perhaps it was inevitable that the New York police commissioner measured the country's success Tuesday in the attempted Times Square bombing against the fictional heroics of Jack Bauer on FOX's "24."

At a midday news conference, Ray Kelly praised the actions of law enforcement officials for capturing a suspect in the car bomb case a little more than two days after the incident.

"Now, by my calculation . . . it was 53 hours and 20 minutes," Kelly said. "Now we know that Jack Bauer can do it in 24 minutes. But in the real world, 53 hours is a -- is a pretty good number."

Kelly meant 24 hours, of course, a reference to the TV series in which Bauer always manages to solve a major terrorist event in a single day. But Kelly's comparison was clearly meant to draw the comparison between real-life agents and the Hollywood version.

In fact, the similarities are eerie between reality and the television version of the terrorist plot now playing out in New York City. The main difference? The video surveillance is far better in the show.

As Bauer tracks a terrorist bomb hidden in a van through the streets of Manhattan in this season's "24," he is aided by secret spy drones flying over the city, training their cameras on virtually every intersection. With just a phone call, Bauer directs a drone to the location he wants and up pop detailed images -- license plates, even the face of a suspect.

What a contrast to the short, grainy video the New York Police Department released Monday of a "person of interest" in the botched Times Square bombing. Worse than most YouTube clips, the picture of a man removing his jacket is fuzzy, obscuring his face and any other identifying features.

The difference between reality and Hollywood is also playing out in the gulf, where the hope that the U.S. military could save the day with some super-secret technology is turning out to be unfounded. As federal officials struggle to respond to the oil gushing from more than 5,000 feet underwater, it's been clear that the Defense Department does not have a silver bullet to fix what the oil company can't. As Thad Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, said at a briefing for reporters: "The mere presence of, say, a Navy ship doesn't necessarily add to the response, and a lot of the submersibles that are being used there that in some cases are very technically superior, have the ability to pick up small screwdrivers at a depth of 5,000 feet."

Movie buffs might be surprised to learn that the submarines owned by a private oil company are superior to the ones at the disposal of the U.S. military.

The reality, unfortunately, is that television always makes everything seem easier than it actually is. There are no drones overhead in New York City. There is no government oil-rig-disaster-fixer that can plug up the leak in the ocean.

What does exist -- especially in the case of the failed New York bombing -- are eerie similarities between the crisis playing itself out in real life and the television fantasy inspired by writers.

In the television series, terrorists use an improvised "dirty bomb" with radiological rods to inspire terror in pursuit of their political agenda against factions in their country. In the real world, officials said Monday that it is increasingly likely that the New York bombing attempt is linked to foreign terrorists.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company