Wednesday, January 7, 2009

July 2004: Fear, Vigilance & Trying to Understand

Fear: Life changed with the 9-11 attacks in New York and Washington. This is not a profound statement. In the United States, we were rudely waken from the idyll we enjoyed in the 1990s since the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Soviet Union. We seemed to have replaced the fear of global nuclear war with that of terrorism which may include the unthinkable: bio-chemical attacks or dirty bombs. Communists and the KGB have been replaced by Al Qaeda and Islamic Fundamentalists.

I work in New York, a prime target for terror being the financial and cultural center of the United States, some would say the world. We cannot deny it is also a prime target because of its large Jewish population, 1.4 million in the metropolitan area; the largest concentration outside the state of Israel.

Whatever level of fear I had increased a quantum level on March 11th of this year. That was the day of the horrible train bombings in Spain in which 191 people were killed and 1,600 injured from ten remotely detonated backpack bombs on four commuter trains.

I truly felt horrible, on a few levels, when this hearing of the Madrid bombings. I felt very sad for the people and their families. Like many others, I wondered “what is this world coming to?” But, I felt sick to my stomach because it made real the fear that the same could easily happen here in New York. Most users of commuter trains and subways harbored this fear, but we almost never verbalized it. The Madrid bombings brought this very real risk to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

You cannot guard against such an attack. Putting in airport like security screening measures is not a good option. That would add, I am guessing, a minimum of thirty minutes to everyone’s daily commute. Commuters would revolt if that were to happen.

The Madrid bombings disrupted and influenced the Spanish elections. It is likely the same could be done here. The Republican Convention will take place in New York the last week of August. It was announced just last week that the Colgate Offices will be closed as we are right across Park Avenue from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where President Bush will be staying.

Vigilance: The most absurd thing about security is that the only thing the average person can do, barring becoming a total recluse, is to be more “vigilant.” When the Terror Alert Level goes from Yellow to Orange, government officials and other talking heads on television tell us not to curtail our normal routines but, most definitely, to be more “vigilant.” It is an interesting choice of words. We could be more careful, alert, attentive, or aware. But no, the word often used in “vigilant.” Vigilant is being aware certainly but being aware of dangerous or unsafe situations. So, it is a good word. Vigilant is also close to vigilante.

We are to keep on the lookout for things out of the ordinary. Great! Everyday, in New York, I see things out of the ordinary. But I am a good citizen, plus I love Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and Nelson DeMille novels. I can be vigilant. I can be on the lookout for danger and intrigue around every corner ready to spring into action, to dive behind cars or into doorways, to come up shooting or to beat bad guys senseless even though I carry no arms and have no martial arts skills. Yet, I have been vigilant. Here are a few examples.

Taking the train home in the summer of 2002, I notice two serious burly men board the train. I think nothing of it until they sit down one row in front of me, in seats facing each other. Because I am trying to be vigilant, I notice that they did not take off their suit jackets and, even odder, they did not unbutton them. It was a hot day and ninety percent of the men would take them off on the train and I never see anyone sit down anywhere with their jacket buttoned. So, here are two guys doing exactly that. They both look stern and one of them is sweating. I conclude that something is not right with these two guys. As the train is already underway, I decide to wait for the conductor to come by. The wait is short and the conductor collects my ticket first. I plan to follow the conductor past earshot of my two suspects and disclose the fruits of my vigilance. As the conductor asks for their tickets, the suspect facing me moves his suit jacket aside to reveal… a badge. Whew! They were undercover train police. I engaged the policeman in conversation and related this story and told him I was glad that he was in fact a police officer. He commended me for my vigilance. I then asked him what I should have done and he said to tell the conductor. Then what should I have done. “Nothing,” he said. Not good advice if he were really a bad guy. I translate the officer’s message as tell the conductor and get the hell out of that car.

Another beautiful summer day last year, I was walking past the Waldorf. On the corner of 50th and Park, I see a man I could easily assume might be from the Middle East. He is standing on the corner with a video camera, aimed up at the top of buildings, he is filming and slowly turning around to capture the full panorama. Again, due to having vigilant radar on, I make immediate note of this. I take a few steps on notice two uniformed police officers walking my way. How fortuitous, as I imagined myself getting a medal from the President. I walk up to them and relate what I have just seen and point to the man who is still video taping. One of the police officers said, “Makes ya think, don’t it” and they walked away! They did nothing! Confiscate the camera! Drag this guy off to Guatanamo! Do something. What a waste of my vigilance.
Shortly after the Madrid bombing, Metro-North Railroad put a flyer on each seat in order to educate the passengers in how to be more vigilant. I read it but found it to be a waste of time since my vigilance skills were already honed beyond the simplistic advice they were giving.

One day in April, I was taking the train into the city on a Saturday. It was a pleasant afternoon and I was engrossed in the newspaper. A man who looked normal, i.e. like a suburban executive type, plopped a Nike sports bag next to me, asked me to watch it for a few minutes while he went to the restroom. Instinctively, without any vigilance senses working at all, I said “Sure.” Seconds after he left, I looked at his bag and thought how potentially stupid I was. I got up and looked down the aisle and thankfully saw the man go into the restroom in the next car. I kept watching until I saw him come back. I explained my concern. He apologized for not even thinking about it either. We both then commiserated how what once was simple social cordiality was now suspect.

Lastly a few weeks ago, I was in Grand Central Terminal on a Saturday evening about to return home after having dinner with friends. I saw a street woman shuffling through the terminal on a warm July evening wearing a heavy winter coat. Zounds! My vigil-o-meter needle was pegged to the red. This was exactly the kind of “out of the ordinary” thing the Metro-North Flyer advised us to look for and gave the specific example of “someone wearing a heavy winter coat in summer.” Luckily, National Guardsmen were nearby, looking stern, M-16s at the ready. I went up, explained what I saw, pointing out the suspect woman who was still in sight. They looked at me like I was suspect! I tried to tell them that this was exactly the kind of thing the Flyer alerted us to be vigilant about. They didn’t care! I felt like I was in a Michael Moore documentary.

I will continue to be vigilant in my Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan fantasy.

Trying to Understand: Around the same time the Madrid bombings were in the news, the Israelis were assassinating Hamas leaders. First, they killed the founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin on March 22. Hamas immediately named Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi as Yassin’s successor. The television was full of images of black hooded, armed, marching and chanting Hamas militants and Israelis justifying the assassination. A few weeks later on April 18th, Rantisi was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike. There were even more images, justifications and vows of revenge. This time Hamas chose not make the name of their new leader public.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the name sounded familiar, beyond just being on the news so much. So, I went through my notebook of articles I clip and save seemingly just for such purposes. Yes, I found something. On page 38 of the July 8, 2002 issue of Forbes, there was a very short piece attributed to Charles Oliver, Reason Online. I quote it in its entirety:

Not in My Backyard
“Do as I say, not as I do” seems to be the motto for Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who helps recruit suicide bombers in the Middle East. When his 23 year old son volunteered that he would be “honored” to be a martyr, Rantisi wasn’t encouraging: “He doesn’t know what he is saying… He is only saying this because of his youth. Some men must grow up to become doctors.” (Rantisi’s son is a medical student.) But for that to happen, others have to sacrifice themselves and become martyrs.

I remembered why I first clipped this. I was shocked and taken aback when I first read this. I wondered what the families of those who had given their lives for their cause thought when they read this. Were they blind to the glaring contradiction?

Now Rantisi had been assassinated and along with him one of his six children, Mohammed. I could not confirm through any web search if this was the son he referred to in the quote.
Extremists, religious extremists, those using indiscriminate violence on innocence, confuse me. I just do not understand it. It is, as if, they are operating in a completely different logic than the rest of us. This is driven home whenever I read something like the above quote from Rantisi.
Non-extremists try to look at both sides. They try to understand both sides. Extremists are not so hampered. Their viewpoint is solid and unwavering. While the less extreme are weighing issues, contemplating all points of view, and looking for compromise, extremists can simply act, often violently, toward their own ends. This reminds me of the poem, The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats in which he states “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

In the US, we think we can barter a peace agreement between opposing sides in the Middle East. In previous peace initiative, I find our government officials using words like “finding a middle ground” or “trying to hammer out a deal.” There is a huge disconnect here. In order to barter, to find a middle ground or to work out a deal require that both parties essentially want the same thing. This is the case in business. Sellers and buyers want to do business; they want a transaction to happen. All they have to do is work out the terms, each party compromising to some degree, depending upon their leverage, to make it happen.

When both parties are diametrically opposed and want the demise of the other side, there is no middle ground and the only use of a hammer is to bash each other. To me, this is why peace in that part of the world will be so hard to achieve.

Why does anyone want to bomb a commuter train full of innocents? The easiest way to answer that question is that the bombers are extremists, they are the worst, they are bad, in short they are the enemy. I am beginning to believe that is definitely true. The problem is that once a group is colored as bad, evil and hence the enemy, is that those labels extend too easily to an entire religion, race or nation. It is easy to write off all of Islam, all Arabs, all Jews, all Irish, all English, all Turks and, yes, all Armenians.

Who suffers? Not the extremists. This is the life they have chosen. I don’t care a wink about Rantisi or his family. I feel a bit more for the families of those he talked into becoming suicide bombers. I feel sorriest for innocent Iraqis killed by Hussein, US bombs and car bombs. I feel bad for innocent Israelis killed by suicide bombers and innocent Palestinians killed in retributions.

If violent extremists decide you are their enemy, there is no time to lack conviction. You have to define them as your enemy and you have to treat them as the same. If you can, you have to go out and get them before they get you. This logic, unfortunately, I can understand. There is no negotiation, there is no compromise. It will not go away. Another unfortunate fact, innocents will get hurt. This logic is tough to swallow and maybe is why the best are lacking conviction.
Others make more eloquent arguments than mine will ever be. But, I still have a hard time understanding violent extremism. I can follow the arguments and see the points, I just have a hard time understanding.

The last line of Yeats poem is even more ominous, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
The Second ComingW. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst Are full of passionate

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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