Wednesday, September 24, 2003

You Want To Live Like That?

--Ponce, Puerto Rico

I knew better.

I had worked in Puerto Rico in the late 1970’s. I remember the night a lawyer from Miami was gunned down outside his condo in San Juan. His disfigured body was front page news the next morning. Crime and violence and pools of blood and missing body parts are commonplace in third world newspapers, which makes them different from their U.S. counterparts in which we hear about violence, but we don’t really see it. Even wars are sanitized for our virgin eyes, and that is a mistake. Being made to see what a human face looks after being shot half a dozen times at close range with a large caliber pistol makes it harder to want to kill others.

Ten years after leaving the island, I didn’t want to kill anybody. I didn’t even want to go back. But, the money was good and I was in the midst of a divorce and I needed to get out of town, or maybe those are just excuses I use for doing something crazy, like going back and screwing around with a union linked to the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire on New Year’s Eve, 1986, when 97 people died there in less than 12 minutes.

Excuses aside, I did return to Puerto Rico in July, 1989, to Ponce, the island’s second largest city. Ponce advertises itself as "La Perla del Sur" (the Pearl of the South), and downtown is, indeed, beautiful. But outside the city clapboard shacks, abject poverty, and starving animals filled the landscape. The southern coastline was fouled by heavy industry, refineries and oil storage depots.

I stayed at the Ponce Holiday Inn, but not alone. Part of the deal to return was having someone to watch over me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I was crazy, but not stupid, and I figured something evil would go down and I would be involved in it and I was right.

A few minutes after ten o’clock in the evening the week after I arrived it happened. I was sitting in the refinery offices 600 yards from the deepwater port where tankers offloaded crude. I was there with the president of the company who had winged in from New York, their general counsel, terminal manager, various under-managers, and Juan, a nice Puerto Rican about my age who had returned from a couple of tours in Vietnam, spoke great English, smiled a lot, said little, and had a .45 Gold Cup automatic in a holster around his ankle. Perched on the side of the mountain above us were dozens of white petroleum storage tanks, some a hundred yards in diameter and ten stories tall. At night, they were lit by powerful flood lights making it appear giant mushrooms had sprouted from the earth.

It is hard to describe what it sounds like when someone climbs to the top of a huge flagon of pure distillate and tosses an incendiary device into the space between the wall of the vessel and its free-floating top. But I remember it reminded me of what a million matches might sound like if they were all struck at once. Even inside a concrete block bunker, we all knew something very wrong had gone down. No one said a word but everyone hit the door about the same time and I remember the heat from the flames on my face, from a fire that had only begun to engulf the giant tank.

I didn’t say ‘goodbye,’ or 'see you later, guys,' but took off running, instinctively, intuitively, toward the water, figuring if the big carafe of gasoline exploded, I’d be better off in the ocean. (I later found it would have made no difference at all.) I ran straight through the security gate, and I wasn’t alone. I heard the footfall of the company’s president behind me. It is strange what you think about when you’re running away from fire but I remember running and being pissed off at the same time. After all, I thought, there are 256 employees who run this refinery and more than 200 guards to make sure nothing like this ever happens. But it happened, nonetheless.
Anger became fear about 300 yards into the dash when I spotted a vehicle speeding down the beach road between me and the ocean with a huge light rack that turned night into today, and as soon as we were in its light, the big Jeep swerved off the road and headed directly for us. I would have laughed, but I didn’t find the irony of being smoked out of a protected facility that funny. I didn’t even laugh when I dug my heels into the sand, turned and began running back toward the fire, even though it would have been a great scene for a Keystone Cops remake.
Instead, I ran like a scalded dog toward the inferno, and I learned a vehicle moving about 50 miles an hour takes almost no time at all to run someone down on foot, even if that someone has a hell of a head start, and when he overtook us, and the driver’s door swung open, I thought, “What kind of moron would run past armed guards and away from Juan into a black night to face this shit!” Well, even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then, and I did. Juan jumped out of the Jeep and I remember his lips moving and his motions animated, but I could hear nothing over the sound of the fire that had now engulfed the huge white mushroom on the side of the mountain. We leapt into the Jeep and in seconds we were up the coast road away from the fire, one the San Juan Star would report the next morning took the Coast Guard two helicopters and nine hours to extinguish.

That night in the Ponce Holiday Inn bar I was on my fourth or fifth Wild Turkey when I noticed Juan across the room near the door staring at me. Whether it was the fire, the sprint, the whiskey or maybe the evil combination of all of it, something important dawned on me at that moment and I motioned Juan to come over to the bar. I tapped on the barstool next to me and he sat down.

“Want one of these?” I said pointing at my glass filled with clear ice and good whiskey.

“Can’t drink now. You know that.” he said staccato-like.

“I can,” motioning to the bartender for another.

“Listen, Juan, I appreciate what you did tonight. I guess I was crazy . . .”

He interrupted. “It’s my job. Don’t worry about it.”

“OK, I won’t worry about it, but I have a question,” staring straight ahead looking at him in the bar mirror. “Just a few minutes ago, I was sitting here on this barstool. You were over by the door.”

“Correct,” he replied.

“And, you’re my bodyguard, right?" I asked rhetorically.

“Yes,” he said, staring back at me in the mirror.

“Then, Juan, let me ask you what stops some asshole from walking right past you, up to me, pulling a .32 out of his pants, and putting a nice hole right here,” I inquired, pointing to the side of my head.

Juan smiled gently but said nothing.

“What are you grinning about damned it?” I snapped.

“Is that what you believe I’m here for? To stop some ‘asshole’ from killing you?” he said quietly.
“Yes,” I responded, no hesitation, “that’s exactly what I believe.”

He motioned to the bartender and pointed to my drink.

“I’ll make an exception,” he said.

His drink came and he drew deeply.

“Listen, amigo, and listen carefully,” he began. “No one, and I mean no one, can stop someone who wants to kill you from putting a bullet in your head, poison in your drink, a bomb in your car, or a knife in your chest.” He paused a moment. “Of course, there are ways to eliminate these possibilities, but you will need to live inside a metal room, one door, no windows, guards all day, all night, and guards to make sure those guards don’t get bought and paid for, and still more guards beyond those guards because you never know, and you’d best plan on never leaving, even to take a pee.” He turned and looked at me, and sipped his cocktail. “You want to live like that?” he asked.

I thought for a moment. “No, that wouldn’t be living. But, that leaves an important question unanswered. What you are doing here, Juan?”

“I’m here to make sure whoever kills you dies,” he responded, no hesitation.
I sipped my whiskey and stared straight ahead.

“It’s called deterrence,” he continued. “The guy who kills you has 5 bullets in his chest in as many seconds. And I make sure he makes the papers tomorrow – you know what I mean – photos of the huge hole in his chest, mask of terror, mouth gaping, big pool of blood. The next asshole will think twice before he takes a few bucks and signs his own death warrant. That’s the way it works. You understand?”

“And,” he added before I could reply, “When the asshole comes in here to take you out, he may see me. He stops a moment. He thinks. Maybe he knows. Maybe he suspects. Maybe he worries I’m the one. Maybe he wonders if there are more like me he doesn’t see. Maybe he thinks about his family. Maybe he decides not to do it. Or, maybe he does it anyway. That’s the best I can do. That’s the best anyone can do.” He finished his drink quickly, got up, and walked back over to the door where he stood and stared at me again.

I share this story because I have reflected on it from time to time over the years and I have always wondered what it meant. Now, I believe I have the handle. It is a metaphor for what is happening in America.

Just as I thought Juan could save me from the bad guys, since 9/11 most of America believes Bush, Ashcroft, Ridge, and the rest of our “bodyguards” are going to do the same. They haven't, they can’t, and they won’t, and by trying to "save" us, they are erecting a metal box surrounded by guards, and guards to watch those guards. The misnamed “Patriot Act II” is not the only example, but a good one. This piece of legislation would allow secret arrests with no timeframe for indictment, provides a 5 year prison term for anyone in government who discloses the identity of someone who has been secretly detained, provides that government authorities are entitled to have one-on-one meetings with judges without defense counsel present or even being notified, and gives the Attorney General the right to revoke U.S. citizenship of naturalized citizens who donate to the wrong charities and extradite those charged to any country in the world, whether there is an extradition treaty in place or not.

Folks, the real danger we face is not a bullet in the head or a bomb on the bus. Sure, they are possibilities, but there is a much greater possibility you will get robbed today by another Good American and shot for your wallet, or that your bus will run over you when you step into the street. Those realities are not going to change, and trying to set up barriers between us and the rest of the world won’t stop anyone who wants to walk across a room with a bomb or a bullet from doing so.

Fear makes us crazy, just like I was crazy running out the gate that black night in Ponce. Fear only gets us to a place we don’t want to be, out in the middle of some dune not knowing which way to run, prisoners in our own homes, afraid and suspicious of everything and everyone, and willing to do anything to anybody before they can do anything to us, all because “they” may be one of “them.” Think about it. If Juan had used the same defense strategy in the Ponce Holiday Inn, he’d have killed all the suspicious looking characters coming into the bar. I believe the owner and patrons would have had a problem with that, and I would have understood why.
Yet, few Americans seem to be concerned that the rest of the world is concerned about the idea of preemptive strikes against those who “might” be our enemies, who "might" have WMD's, who "might" have links with terrorists groups. And, few seem bothered by just how much freedom we are sacrificing with laws like Patriot I and Patriot II for what amounts to the appearance of security. Few seem to question whether they are really safer knowing whether the current alert level is “green” or “yellow” or “red.” Few ask whether the x-ray machine and the feds “scanning” their stuff at the airport are going to keep their plane from being blown out of the air. Few wonder openly what happened to all those “weapons of mass destruction” that remain MIA. Still others act surprised that Saddam didn’t have anything to do with 9/11 after all. Most don’t even know there is a Patriot II pending. We're too busy being afraid.

Ben Franklin once wrote that “they that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." A wise admonition to be sure, but one that assumes a fact not in evidence, that we can garner security by sacrificing freedom. In fact, we cannot, if only because we never had security to begin with. There’s no protection against evil in the Holiday Inn Bar in Ponce, Puerto, Rico, and there’s no protection here, either. They may be able to get the guy who gets you, but that's about it as far as security goes. Which leads to the moral of the story: Before we let Big Brother “make it safe” for us, ask yourself, “You want to live like that?”