The VigilanceVoice   

Nov. 28, Wednesday--Ground Zero Plus 78

Sometimes it’s hard to be proud you’re an American.  It was that way for me today.  I was embarrassingly proud.
            It happened in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero.   I was on a hunt for an “ice pad” to keep the bottom of my laptop cool so it didn’t burn into my knees while I was pounding away on a park bench.  It’s that time of year in New York, when the leaves are falling and park benches are more available because it gets colder.   Guys like me like empty park benches.
            I was looking for the ice pad at J&R Computers, located on Park Row, which faces Broadway where a make-shift memorial has grown since the tragedy of September 11.   Banners, flags, pictures and memorabilia from throughout the world hang on the fence of the Trinity Church that serves as the Rescue Worker Relief Station plus a solemn sanctuary to remember those who died just a few blocks away.
            Countless thousands of people stop by each day -- a sort of World Trade Center Vietnam Wall -- to sign burlap sheets hanging off the fence.  The site is tended by volunteers who offer pens to anyone who wishes to write their feelings or express their thoughts.
            Candles flicker vigilantly next to pictures of loved ones who were buried in the rubble of Nine Eleven.  Artifacts such as hats, fireman masks, police emblems and pictures of citizens caught in the disaster on the Second Tuesday of September dot the block-long cenotaph—reminding all of a day no one will quickly forget.

            I decided to take some pictures with my digital camera of the different items sent from all over the world as gestures of sympathy and support.  I worked my way between the close-knit groups of people pausing to examine the display of messages, which ranged from kindergarten classes to nations of families in lands far away.
            As I knelt to take some photos of various vigil candles, a teary eyed young woman stopped and placed a picture of someone she loved behind a candle.  Her lips moved silently for the handsome young man pictured on the memorial card.  When she left, I took a picture to remember him--as she did—as a hero of September 11th.  
          As I finished the picture taking, I heard a loud Voice behind me cursing and swearing.  I looked up.  A wiry-haired man was screaming and cursing at the bystanders.  He spewed out words of hate and disgust for those standing at the “September 11th Memorial Wall.” 
        His Voice boomed through the sanctuary’s silence, terrorizing it, defacing it with vulgar invectives and disparaging remarks about those who died, and how America was a bully, and those who died deserved to die.
            Broadway is a public street, open to anyone wishing to pass by.   The shouting, cursing man was intoxicated, but his words were sober, full of hate and bile.   He spoke in an accent that might have been Hispanic, but perhaps not.
            He berated all the dead, and spat angry words denouncing America as a predator, stalking smaller countries and using its power and might to intimidate them for greed.   He cursed a group of women standing in the solemnly public sanctuary, picking on one in particular who made the error of speaking back.  He ranted that America was an oppressor, and deserved everything it got.  He yelled out he hoped it would happen again, and spun about, eyes enraged, challenging anyone within spitting distance with his anger, his hatred, his vehemence.   His Voice boomed up and down the street, as people remained vigilant, saying nothing, standing quietly and pretending he didn’t exist, tolerating his desecration of the sanctuary.
            New York City is famous for its “crazies,” and this particular person had the market on insanity at the moment.   I watched the people around the memorial remain calm, undisturbed by his outbursts, his threatening accusations.  They continued to remain in a state of composure, silent, somber, as though he were not real, an illusion.
            As I viewed the people paying their respects versus the wild man cursing and raging about America being a “monster,”  a surge of pride ran through me.  This was America at its finest-- two opposites…one berating the dead and fallen and everyone honoring them, and the other side of the spectrum quietly allowing his vehemence to be issued without retaliation.   If there ever was a Terrorist Of The Sanctuary, this man’s vulgarity and violent statements made him the Prime Suspect.

            But no one arrested him.  No one punched him in the mouth to stop him from shouting out his hate and anger in a sanctuary of sadness and honor.  As he cursed the dead, the living and the world at large, no one hauled him off as they might in another country not created on the principle of equal rights, founded in free speech and individual rights opposite of the “norm,” the “mean,” the “median.”   No one came with clubs to beat him.  The citizens didn’t grab him, hold him down, and cut out his tongue.   
            Everyone tolerated him—allowed him the right to bark his offensive words, to make obscene gestures, to desecrate what others were honoring.
            Instead of feeling a sense of moral indignation, I saw the man’s outrage as a powerful salute and tribute to the victims of Nine Eleven.  His Terrorism was not met with Terrorism.  His outrage was not met with equal and opposite Newtonian outrage.  His right to protest the sanctuary was as great as the right to honor the victims of Nine Eleven.  This “right of dissent” made me proud to be an American.
            America has always prided herself on the foundations of Free Speech, and on the individual rights of any citizen to speak his or her mind, however small or grotesque that Voice might be.
            The obscene statements the man made about the victims of Nine Eleven, reinforced the power of Freedom.  It reminded me we do not fight Terrorism with Terrorism.  We fight it with tolerance, respect, and the principle of “justice for all.”  The mass murderer has “rights” under American justice.  He has rights to a fair trail, to appeal.  The judges of Democracy and Freedom on Broadway in Lower Manhattan listened to his evidence, but did not indict him.  They did not prosecute him on the spot for voicing his hatred, his anger, his vehemence against America and all she stood for.

         This madman had the same equal protection of the red-white-and blue as the most innocent child—and that’s what made me proud.  I was proud of the  dignity of the onlookers who did not lower themselves to Terrorist tactics and assault the man, or immediately call for a military tribunal behind closed doors.
            I couldn’t think of too many countries where a “madman” could urinate on the bodies of heroes and innocent victims and not be punished for such an act of sacrilege.   Yet that’s what happened.  People paid the man no heed, except for his right to scream and wail and curse.   They let him vent his rage on the same equal footing they were offering their condolences, their thoughts, their pity and sorrow.  “Justice For All,” I thought, can exist even a man’s actions seemed totally unjust, unfair, unworthy.   Democracy’s “rights” were more important than his offense.
            As the man wandered off, still shouting his drunken, violent words, I thought about the sacrifice of those thousands who died in the World Trade Center attack.  I saw them as Sentinels of Vigilance, reminding us all to not let fear, or intimidation or complacency creep into our lives and destroy the courage, conviction and action that has made America the world’s model of freedom and democracy.
            I imagined them nodding their approval at the courage of the bystanders who allowed the foul breath of a dissenter to desecrate their shrine without retaliation.  I saw the Sentinels of Vigilance approving the conviction the bystanders showed by standing firm, not intimidated by the man’s words or actions. And finally, I realized the action the bystanders took to thwart the dissenter was by taking no Action.    Restraint became their power.  
            Then I thought about a child being present and witnessing the scene.    I wondered how a parent might explain to the child seeing a grown man spew venom on the gravesite of thousands without being strung up or lashed or beaten for his assault on their sacred memories.    How great it would be, I thought, if that parent explained to a child not “how we were killing our enemies,” but rather how we “stood above our enemies,” about how we preserved the values of America by standing up for the principles of Freedom and the Constitutionality of an individual’s right to express himself or herself—and that is what makes America different from Terrorist Nations, where tolerance rather than hate, and acceptance rather than bigotry, rules.
            I figured that conversation might be refreshing for a child who has been inundated with news about America’s Revenge.  I thought it might be a nice balance to the idea that “Justice For All” meant something more than killing bin Laden. Or, holding military tribunals.  Or, presupposing that once we had “killed the terrorists” we would be free from terrorism.
           As those thoughts ran through my mind I looked at the site of destruction where the World Trade Center once stood.  Faint plumes of smoke still rose from the bowels of the disaster.
           I could see the Angels of Vigilance fluttering above the site.  They were as proud as I was to be an American—proud that Democracy had not died in the disaster—proud the Constitution had not lost its power to preserve a person’s individual rights to berate a sanctuary on Broadway in New York City.  

Nov. 27, Tuesday--Ground Zero Plus 77

            The headline announcing the Marines “had landed” in the Kandahar, the Taliban’s home base and spiritual center, reached up and grabbed at my throat, its inky fingers closing tight around my windpipe, driving my mind back thirty-five years ago when I was one in the first contingent of Marines to land in Vietnam.
            I remember rushing ashore, eager “to kill the enemy,”—to rid the “evil ones” of their “terrorism” over the people of Vietnam.   There was a great rush of energy in those early days, for we, the Marines, were going to “free” the slaves of “oppression,” and “right the wrongs,” of the world.

Cliff McKenzie--1965

            Most importantly, we were all trained and willing to give our lives in that pursuit.
            Little did we know that once the glitter had worn off, we would be abandoned to a world of politics and fight not in pursuit of “justice,” but to appease the whims of political pundits who had no idea what it took to win a war.    Compromise replaced attack, and hesitation thwarted aggression.   We ended up in a quagmire of political, social and moral morass from which America is still smarting.
            Not that I liken the situation in Vietnam exactly to that in Afghanistan.   There are differences.  In Vietnam, we weren’t directly attacked.  Thousands of innocent Americans didn’t die in a horrible assault on civilians.   We didn’t yell:  “Remember The World Trade Center!”   But the goal was the same—“Kill the Terrorists of Freedom!”   “Eliminate The Evil Ones!”
             The President stated:  “America must be prepared for loss of life.”   I wondered if, in the final analysis, it would be worth it.   Would revenge justify the deaths of brave young men?   Back when I went to war, fighting for “freedom” of an “oppressed people” was enough justification.   Today, it seems even more “just” to “die” for those who were killed by the Terrorists on September 11.
            But, back thirty-five years ago I wasn’t a Parent of Vigilance, or a Grandparent of Vigilance, or a Citizen of Vigilance.   Instead, I was a young, eager, idealistic man who was willing to lay down his life for people who mostly couldn’t read or writer, or speak my language.  
            When I came back and America spat on me, and called me a “baby killer,” and a “war monger,” I felt the shame and guilt of a nation that turned its back on those willing to die for “anybody’s freedom.”   
            Ironically, today, the warriors fighting in Afghanistan are not there as “liberators,” in the true sense, but there as “eliminators,” bent on the direct “assassination” of a specific leader.   Had we had the same mission in Vietnam—the killing of Ho Chi Minh and his band of Terrorists—perhaps I would have returned to ticker tape parades and accolades instead of an angry nation that demeaned and derided all of us who fought, were wounded or died for that elusive butterfly called “freedom.”

           Perhaps that’s why the headline grabbed me so hard--MARINES HAVE LANDED!.   It seemed to foreshadow the horror of giving your life for something that was controlled not by military guidelines, but by political parameters and “glory polls” that the government used to make their plans for the life and death of its children of combat.
          As I recall the war I fought in, it was a war of Children Of Peace.   The Marines I fought with were mostly young men, ranging from seventeen to nineteen.   They were young idealists as I was, born in a country famous for spilling its blood on foreign soils in pursuit of preserving the democratic dogma in the face of oppression.
             So many of those “childish” faces flashed before my eyes as I blinked a number of times while reading the headline.   I saw them bleeding, crying for “mommy” as the blood gushed out of their bodies and their eyes rolled in fatal fear of the unknown clutches of death.   I could hear them trying to laugh like men, forcing their Voices to sound deep and manly, but sometimes the high pitch of a falsetto speared out instead, reminding everyone the child was in transition to the man, but the evolution was not yet complete.
             I remember their faces—the young boys, the children of war—as we would prepare to land in a hot Landing Zone (LZ), bullets flying, mortars chewing the ground, the smell of smoke clogging the nostrils.  They turned white.  Their eyes bulged.   Their hands shook as they neared the “jaws of death.”    The strong knight in them that had been trained to “kill” was not prepared to “die.”  Their eyes became as frightened as the child in the dark of a bedroom with a naked branch whacking at the window and lightening flashing in the sky.
            I wondered how many of the 500 Marines at Kandahar were about to “piss their pants.”
            Fear, Intimidation and Complacency have no room on the battlefield.   If they infect the warrior, the warrior dies a quick and sometimes painful death.   I had seen so many young men new to battle flinch, hesitate, and receive the “killing blow” because of their “greenness to battle.”    Conversely, I saw the child transform quickly into a mass murderer, young men who got the taste of killing and would shoot anything that moved—men, women, children—to rack up their “kills.”  
           In one village we entered, a young Marine asked an old Vietnamese woman for water.  She brought him a bucket and nervously handed it to him.  He drank from it, spat it out, and accused her of trying to poison him.  Then he proceeded to choke her.   I thought he was joking at first, but his eyes were glazed and as I struggled to release his fingers from her frail neck, they were like iron.   I yelled and shouted at him to stop, but the Beast of Terror had him—had converted him into a senseless killer.   I had to rifle butt him in the back of the head, rendering him unconscious before his hands released the old woman’s throat.

           I hoped none of the young Marines who would bathe themselves in death and destruction would become the “evil ones.”    But it is hard to walk in the rows of death and not be afflicted by the senselessness of killing.   After a while, your moral compass becomes numb.   You find yourself not thinking, not judging, just killing and killing until there are no feelings in you, no compassion, no reservations.  You become a blind warrior.  You become an “ultimate Terrorist,” willing to blindly drive a jetliner into any “evil one’s” building.
            Terrorism, I thought, must tactically only be fought by Terrorism.   You can’t play fair against an enemy who doesn’t play fair and win.  Vietnam taught us that lesson.  To win, you must become the hunted not the hunter.  You must walk in the prey's shoes, think as it thinks, act as it acts.  But, to win, you have to do it better.  It is a Newtonian Law—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.   And to alter that action, you must exercise more unequal force.
            I wished I had been excited about my fellow Marines being the first official fighting forces on the ground in Afghanistan.  But I wasn’t.   I felt the sadness of knowing the Children Of War—the Marines—were going to become Terrorists.    I knew, because near the end of my tour in Vietnam, I became one.  I become a stone cold killer.   That’s the way of war.   It either changes your innocence or you die. 
          I thought about the Marine Corps slogan—Semper Fi!   Always Faithful, I thought--faithful to the Corps, to my comrades, to the flag.    I would cheer on my Marines.  But I wouldn’t cheer them on to become stone cold killers.  I would cheer them on as Children of Vigilance, hoping that perhaps some strands of innocence, if only one sliver, might remain after they are drenched in blood.

Cliff McKenzie
New York City Combat Correspondent
Former U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondent, Vietnam 1965-66
Parent Of Vigilance
Grandparent Of Vigilance
Marine Of Vigilance

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