Terrorism and Me

2 Aug

Thank goodness, I’ve never been a victim of a terrorist act. I count my lucky stars. However, like most of us, I’ve endured the inconvenience, the time-wasting, the humiliation, the absurdity, and the literal danger of official reactions to terrorism.

I’m not just talking about the boringly dumb and silly charade the Transportation Security Agency makes us endure on your average mid-week business flight from Boise to Dallas or Raleigh-Durham to Wilkes-Barre. Institutionalized terrorist response, of which TSA is easily identifiable, is not my beef here. Rather, it’s how close authorities put their citizens to danger in order to “protect” them.

My first encounter with terrorist response was in 1974. Cathie and I were living in Santa Barbara and had driven with two friends in my 1966 Volkswagon bug to Westmont College to hear Daniel Ellsberg talk about, among other things, the responsibilities of individuals in a free society. Not long after we left his lecture we were pulled over by the police. As I stepped out of the car into the glare of the searchlights mounted on multiple police cars I was told by an officer with his gun drawn to get back in the car.

No one approached us for a long while as they got information about my VW’s license plate. Then two officers crept up on either side of the vehicle, guns at ready. They shown their flashlights on us for a long while, concentrating on our friend Barbara in the backseat. After a while one of the cops told us to move along.

We learned later that Barbara’s profile reminded a passing patrol of Patricia Hearst and the authorities had been working on a tip that Hearst, aka Tanya of the Symbionese Liberation Army, was hiding around Santa Barbara. The patrol called in reinforcements and that’s why were pulled over by armed and edgy police.

Three years later Cathie and I were living in Europe when the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Red Brigades were bombing, robbing, kidnapping, and murdering their way into history. One morning while visiting friends outside Cologne, I woke with the worst hangover I’ve ever had in my life. Ever. But my head and stomach troubles were nothing compared to the upheaval in West Germany that morning, which was when the body of Hans Martin Schleyer was discovered, murdered by the Baader-Meinhof terrorists. Schleyer, a former chairman of Daimler-Benz, the General Motors of Germany, at the time held a position equivalent to the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. His was no small-time killing.

The result was that West Germany went into lock-down mode. Armed police appeared everywhere. Trying to cross borders became an exercise in tedium while being watched by young men carrying automatic weapons. Going from West Germany to France or Austria or Switzerland became more like crossing the Berlin Wall into East Germany at the height of the Cold War. (A subject for a different blog post.)

Much later, while on assignment in Israel during the second intifada, I was visiting Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd. with my friend Pimm Fox, who had set up a meeting there. While waiting for our contact at the entrance I took a few quick photos with a film camera and had asked Pimm to shoot one of me at the front gate when two young men in uniform approached pointing automatic rifles at us and demanding the camera.

About that time the PR person appeared. His two guests were standing with their hands partially up while the armed guards watched them warily. It took a minute to clear up the misunderstanding, but I had to leave my camera with the guards, who returned it upon our departure.

Official responses to terrorism, whether here or abroad, always seem to involve authorities clamping down on the rights of citizens. We can debate the genius or the stupidity of such knee-jerk reactions all we want. But it is today’s reality.

So, should you have similar encounters as I have had, and are faced personally by those asked to carry out the clamp down, you need to know a few things. First, your experience will involve mostly young men who are all heavily armed. Worse, they are generally nervous. They are not there to debate civil rights or human liberty with you.

These young, dangerous, and armed authorities have three end goals to choose from: arrest you, shoot you, or let you go. You have only one: to get free. Innocence is no guarantee you’ll reach your goal. Just because they wear a badge or a uniform does not mean they will do the right thing.

Stay calm. Keep your hands in plain sight. Do what you’re told. Only answer the questions you’re asked.

Having a cop or guard point a loaded gun in your direction can be unnerving. Having him unload his gun in your direction, well, that would be much, much worse.


One Response to “Terrorism and Me”

  1. Hud August 4, 2010 at 7:01 pm #

    You’re wife’s sister had a visit during that time from the G-men in Sacto thinking some woman named Angela might be hanging out there. Cooler heads were to prevail after the initial sting of some perfectly good boo being flushed wore off…..

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