18 August 2011

Shadow of Fear in the Aftermath of 9/11

“Scare us with silence, not with death”. - A university student in Tehran, Iran, in Bahman 1388 (February 2010), responding to dire, hysterical warnings of expected violence by the regime coming from the reformists (including Moussavi, Karroubi, Khatami, Khoeniha) in the lead up to the opposition protests on Revolution Day that year.

My favorite pirate joke is one I first read in a Star Trek novel.  I’ve found several versions all over the web, one of which follows.

Long ago, when sailing ships ruled the waves, a captain and his crew were in danger of being boarded by a pirate ship. As the crew became frantic, the captain bellowed to his First Mate, "Bring me my red shirt!"

The First Mate quickly retrieved the captain's red shirt, which the captain put on and lead the crew to battle the pirate boarding party. Although some casualties occurred among the crew, the pirates were repelled.

The men sat around on deck that night recounting the day's events when an ensign looked to the Captain and asked, "Sir, why did you call for your red shirt before the battle?"

The Captain, giving the ensign a look that only a captain can give, exhorted, "If I am wounded in battle, the red shirt does not show the blood, and thus you men will continue to fight unafraid."

The men sat in silence, marveling at the courage of such a man.

The next morning, the lookout screamed that there were two pirate vessels sending boarding parties. The crew cowered in fear, but the captain, calm as ever, bellowed, "Bring me my red shirt!" Once again, the battle was on, and the Captain and his crew repelled both boarding parties, though this time more casualties occurred.

Later that day, however, the lookout screamed that there were pirate ships, 10 of them, all with boarding parties on their way. The men became silent and looked to the Captain, their leader, for his usual command.

The Captain, calm as ever, bellowed, "Bring me my brown pants!"

* * * * *

Imagine yourself in a packed nightclub with a band and a large but empty dance floor.  You’re sitting at a table with your friends.  No one’s dancing.  Suddenly you’re on a barstool in the middle of the otherwise empty dance floor.  You’re painfully aware of everyone staring at your back.  You realize you’re now stark naked. 

I’ll bet each o’ y’all just felt a chill run down your spine. That’s what it feels like when you’re under hostile surveillance.

I know that because that was exactly the feeling I had while under surveillance one night at Cheers nightclub outside of Clark Air Base in the Philippines.  At the time, I was being investigated by the Naval Investigative Service (NIS< then, now NCIS, C for Criminal) on suspicion of espionage. 

Now open your eyes and remember that feeling.

I’m here to talk to you today about the spirit of fear that has pervaded our society for the past several years. 

First, I’m going to address the events of 9/11 and the so-called “war on terror”. 

Second, I’m going to try to give you some insight into the atmosphere present here, and across the world, during the time I was first in college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) in the 1980’s. 

Third, I’m going to relate some of my own personal experiences with terrorism when I was with the Navy in the Philippines. 

Finally, I’m going to attempt to put all these things into a perspective that will help make you less afraid and give you hope.

Now, let’s look again at events with which I know all of you are somewhat familiar, and how they have affected our nation’s culture.


According his 25 March 2007 article for the Washington Post entitled “Terrorized by the ‘War on Terror’”, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski states that “the ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.”

When the first hijacked plane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, I had just logged on to the Internet after dropping my son off at school.  Shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from a friend of mine telling me to “turn on your TV; America is under attack.”  I did so, and as I stood watching horrified, the second plane slammed into the South Tower. 

After attempting to contact my friends in New York City over the net to check on them and not succeeding because the whole web was clogged, I returned to the living room just in time to see the South Tower collapse, followed by the North Tower a half hour later.  For the next two weeks, I got maybe two or three hours of sleep a night as I watched various news channels which were all covering the scene at the WTC nearly 24 hours a day. 

The attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon were both the worst terrorist incident in American history, and the worst attack by a foreign entity on American soil in our history, and afterwards, Americans were terrified by al-Qaida.  However, every other terrorist attack on American soil has been carried out by our own people, exclusively by right-wing extremists the past several years prior to that.

Homegrown terrorism

The Unabomber, who sent letter bombs to judges and other government officials from the 1970’s to the ‘90’s, was an American.

The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was carried out by Americans.

The abortion clinic bombings in the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s were carried out by Americans.

The bombing of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 was carried out by an American.

The spate of arson attacks on African-American churches throughout the South in the 1990’s were carried out by Americans.

The anthrax attacks that began the week after 9/11 was carried out by an American.

The main perpetrator of the Beltway Sniper attacks that took place in the Washington, D.C., area in October 2002 was an American.

Like comedian Chris Rock said during his act on his latest tour, after citing many of these incidents, “I ain’t afraid of al-Qaida; I’m afraid of Al Cracker!”.

According to Brzezinski again, “the culture of fear is like a genie that has been let out of its bottle.”

The Halloween night following 9/11, the streets usually filled with happy, eager kids seeking candy were virtually deserted, and my son David was so disgusted he asked to be taken home after only an hour and refused to go out trick-or-treating ever again.

America’s shame

In the days and weeks immediately following those events, there were numerous attacks against Muslim Americans, some fatal, including one Sikh man mistaken for being a Muslim. 

Our fear has led us to commit or allow in our name atrocities that would previously been unthinkable.  The warrantless wiretapping of American citizens was a practice stringently forbidden under any circumstances when I was in the Naval Security Group (now the Information Operations Directorate of the Naval Network Warfare Command, or IOD of NETWARCOM).

We have held and are holding criminal suspects without bail, without charge, without access to an attorney, and without being allowed any means of challenging their detention, even to this day under a President who promised to close down Guantanamo Bay prison, the shame of our nation.

We have not only tortured prisoners, but have allowed information obtained under torture to be used against the few in court who have so far been tried.

The constant drumbeat of warnings about various vague possibilities of terrorist attacks have eroded our sense of self-confidence, our capacity for happiness, and our ability see the rest of the world as anything but a potential enemy.

Mutually Assured Destruction

By contrast, all we had to worry about the first time I was in college, at UTC in the early 1980’s, was achieving peace through mutual annihilation via nuclear holocaust.

In the early 1980’s, just before another surge in the arms race began, the United States and the Soviet Union had roughly 40,000 nuclear warheads aimed at each other.  According to some of the anti-nuke literature of the period, each nation had the capacity to destroy the entire planet and all life on it 30 to 40 times over, though after the first five or ten times, does it make a difference?

According to Soviet sociologists Stanislav Roshchin and Tatiana Kabachenko, after citing results of similar studies done by American scientists in their own country, stated that the results of their own studies showed that the number one fear of young people ages 12-22 was dying in a nuclear war, or surviving one alone.

In the waning years of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule over the USSR and the installation of a new administration in the White House, tensions between the two countries began to rise significantly.
The United States announced that it was planning to find a way to ensure the survival of the United States after a nuclear war, making a nuclear war winnable.
The United States furthermore announced that it was initiating the placement of nuclear-tipped missiles on Continental Europe, within easy striking distance of the USSR. 

The Soviet Union announced development of a new line of nuclear weapons offensive capability. 

The United States began attempting to develop the capability to strike down incoming ICBM’s with ground-launched missiles, which was in violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.

Thus began a period of heightened tensions and escalation in the production and development of nuclear arms that spread a pall of fear across both Europe and North America.  Every day we, the people of the USA, the USSR, and Europe, lived in fear that the next incident, the next misunderstanding, between the two superpowers would lead to the launching of missiles by one side or the other which would result in a counter-action by the side targeted.

If that happened, both sides would have launched their entire stockpiles of ICBM’s (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and SLBM’s (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) in order that they not be destroyed by those of the opposing side. 

Given the average time it would have taken all those missiles would have reached their targets, World War III would have lasted about 45 minutes.  After such a war, according to former Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, the survivors would envy the dead, not that they would be living much longer.

The mood of many people, the ones who were aware of the danger, is best summed up in the lyrics of a song by a German pop group called Nena, first released in German in 1983 and in English in 1984, called “99 Red Balloons”.

At the beginning of the song, Nena and a friend buy a bag of 99 red balloons, fill them up with helium and release them into the sky.  A bug in someone’s early warning system signals that an attack is underway, planes and missiles are launched, and at the end of the song, she sings,

It's all over and I'm standing pretty.
In this dust that was a city. 
If I could find a souvenir 
Just to prove the world was here. 
And here is a red balloon
I think of you and let it go.

The small hope that this would not happen, and that sanity would prevail, is summed up in the lyrics of the song “Russians” by the artist Sting, at the end of which he sings,

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me and you
Is that the Russians love their children too.”

Not long after I arrived at Clark Air Base in December 1987 when I was with the Navy, I learned from one of my shipmates, who had been the Sixth Fleet was in the Eastern Mediterranean in support of the Marines in Lebanon, that in September 1982 World War III had almost happened.

Our forces there went to DefCon 2 along with at least those of Europe, CENTCOM (Central Command), and NORAD (North American Air Defense Command), a greater number of forces than were at that level during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And the heightened threat level remained for nearly two weeks.

The threat level was raised because of the defensive actions of the Soviets taken because of the proximity of so many American forces combined with the carelessly belligerent rhetoric coming from Ronnie Raygun and the rest of the White House crew.  Many of the same brought who brought the world the war in Iraq.

One wrong move and that would have been it: no them, no us, no more.

The Philippines

Now that we have me at Clark Air Base, which was in Pampanga in the Philippines before the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo’s volcano in June 1991, I can tell you about some of my personal experiences with terrorism.

Five weeks before I arrived, in October, four men were assassinated by sparrow squads of the insurgent New People’s Army.  Three of them were active duty American servicemen.  The fourth was a Filipino retired from the US Air Force.  A fifth man targeted evaded his assassination team and escaped. 

American personnel were restricted to base for two weeks.  Afterwards, the hours they were permitted to be off and on the streets were limited.

Five months after I arrived, a war began in Angeles City outside the base between gunmen of the NPA and of right-wing paramilitaries.  The sparrow unit of the NPA was called the Mariano Garcia Brigade, and the primary paramilitary units of the right-wing were the Angelito Simbulan Brigade based in San Fernando and the Faustino Sabile Brigade based in Mabalacat.

(The Mariano Garcia Brigade developed out of the earlier Group Mazda of the NPA's Josepino Corpuz Command in Central Luzon, and the two right-wing death squads were organized by Lt. Col. Jovito Palparan of the 69th Infantry Battalion and directed from his headquarters in Angeles City.)

This lasted for more than two months.  There was a least one death, more often two or three, on either or both sides every single day. 

It only ended after women from both sides marched together down the main street of the city barefoot to call for an end to it.  In spite of almost daily warnings about potential terrorist activitiy against US personnel, intelligence reports failed to note this conflict until three weeks after it had ended.

In April 1989, an acquaintance of mine from Defense Language Institute whom I greatly admired, Lt. Col. Nick Rowe of the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group, Philippines, was assassinated on his way to his headquarters in Manila one morning by then NPA chief Rolly Kintanar working with the NPA's Metro Manila sparrow unit, the Alex Boncayao Brigade.

In September 1989, American personnel at Clark were once again targeted for assassination.  The selected target was a busload of Navy personnel who travelled daily to their worksite at Capas Naval Station in Tarlac province, several miles north of the base.

The driver of the bus was my future father-in-law, who, remembering warnings of imminent action over the past few days, foiled the hit squad’s plans when he noticed the roadblock and became suspicious, turning the bus around and carrying my friends back to Capas. 

Two civilian engineers from Ford Aerospace (friends of another civilian friend) drove into the ambush and had their car riddled by over three hundred rounds of automatic weapons fire.  A couple of weeks later, I learned that the suspected leader of the hit team had gone to high school with my future brother-in-law.

Now, remember that feeling I told you about at the beginning.
A few months after leaving the Navy and going to work for the US Refugee Program based out of Manila, I returned to the vicinity Clark (Angeles and Mabalacat) as I did every weekend to visit my fiancee.  Two weeks before our wedding, we were walking down the road outside the base’s perimeter when I felt that feeling again. 

I looked back and looked ahead, and though I saw nothing obvious, I darted across the road between two oncoming vehicles.  Sensing danger had passed, I returned across the street and we continued to her work, a nightclub called Cheers, and I went upstairs to the terrace where my friends from the club were sitting with a palpable tension in the air.

They were discussing an alert that had been issued that day about potential assassination attempts that weekend, with five persons reportedly being targeted.

I then realized what had just happened, that I had been about ten or fifteen seconds from walking into an ambush like those of October 1987 (something which I was later able to confirm), but told them not to worry about it, that nothing was going to happen to them.

Nothing indeed did happen to any of the five of us originally targeted, mainly because the guy in charge of the NPA’s operation was captured later that Friday evening, but an hour after I caught the bus back to Manila, a sparrow squad shot down two Air Force officers at Clark on temporary duty from Japan outside their hotel two hundred yards from the bus stop.

During the remaining year and a half of my stay in Manila, in addition to all the bank and armored car robberies, small-scale gun battles, and night-time low-flying by military helicopters that took place within a kilometer of our apartment complex, one night six bombs went off simultaneously within a kilometer radius of our complex, with it being hit as well.

(NOTE: I have a great deal of respect for the fighters of the New Peoples Army.  They are for the most part extremely professional, and the only real force for democracy in the country.  That does not mean, however, that either it or its members are perfect.)

Fight the fear, and the fear-mongers

Now that we’ve discussed that I’ve experienced terrorism, living in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, as well as witnessed the events which brought about the current atmosphere in the country, we can end by discussing how to deal with fear so that it doesn’t rule your life.

One of the first ways to prevent fear from taking control of your life is to fight back.

As I mentioned previously, Halloween night 2001, rather than hide in my house alone and afraid with my son, I took him out trick-or-treating in defiance of the fear so many of us felt.

During the 1980’s, I joined a group called Beyond War that was set up to build a movement that would lead to the end of nuclear arms, or at least build bridges between people of the Soviet Union and the United States at the grassroots level.

On the evening of the day the two Ford Aerospace employees were assassinated, I had plans with several of the girls who worked at Cheers to go downtown to the barbeque stands along the railroad tracks, and while we changed plans to an indoor restaurant, several miles from base, I did go out that night as planned. 

Lest you think I was being brave, I have to tell you I was so nervous and scared shitless I had to go into the bathroom and stick my fingers down my throat to vomit before I could eat or drink anything.

In the case of terrorism, perhaps we could start a petition for the Department of Homeland Security to adopt a red shirt-brown pants threat level system.


In response to an artistic photograph in the album of a friend on Myspace (Sasha Grey) entitled “Why Am I Scared?”, I wrote,

“Why am I scared?  I’m scared because I’m alive.  The trick is not to not do things because you’re afraid, but instead to do those things specifically because we ARE afraid.  If we ever stop being scared, then we’re dead, and if we are still moving around it’s only because we don’t know it yet and are just animated bodies walking around in a permanent vegetative state of mere existence, with our souls already outlined in chalk.”

In closing, I’d like to paraphrase a line from the movie “Braveheart”:  Everyone dies, but not everyone really lives.  Go out and be one of the ones who lives.

(The original version of this essay was delivered as a talk in speech class given to my mostly freshman and sophomore classmates in the spring of 2008.)


AlanT said...

Excellent and interesting story ... good advice and sentiments which I agree with wholeheartedly.

Chuck Hamilton said...

Glad you like it :)

Steve K said...

I love that the Middle Finger image is still a Top 10 Google result for a bunch of WTC keywords over a decade later.

I made that image in 15 minutes using MSPaint at work back in September of 2001. Had no idea it would ever end up going so viral.

Chuck Hamilton said...

It's a great pic :)