The VigilanceVoice

June 30, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 291

Torturing The Soul Of Vigilance
Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

GROUND ZERO, New York City, June 29--Syrian interrogators, under U.S. direction, are torturing a 300-pound terror suspect named Mohammed Heidar Zammar.   He's talking.   Torture does that.  It forces one's tongue to flap in the wind in hopes the pain might cease.  It also kills the spirit of Vigilance.   I know.  I was part of a brutal, horrible torture scene, not unlike the one we are part of in Syria.

  Mohammed Heidar Zammar

        The Syrian case, recently reported in the July 1 issue of Time Magazine by Mitch Frank, Massimo Calabresi, Douglas Waller and Charles P. Wallace, sounded far too familiar to me.  It brought back memories I cannot keep locked in a vault, and faces of the tortured I prefer would vanish forever, but return always to haunt me.
        Zammar's case is quite simple.   A Syrian-born German citizen, 41-year-old Zammar had close ties to the hijackers of Nine Eleven, especially Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader.   Even though Zammar was under surveillance after the Terrorist attacks, the German government did not have enough evidence to arrest him and gave him a temporary passport to visit Morocco.  He left Germany on October 27, 2001 and vanished immediately.

     Mohammed Atta

       Last week Germans were reading the newspaper and ran across a story that stated Zammar had been arrested in Morocco and deported to Syria. They were angered no one told them one of their citizens was being held captive in another country, undergoing torture sanctioned by the United States.
        Syria is short on human rights and uses torture as a primary means of getting information.   It has, in the past, been one of America's most despicable enemies because it provides shelter for Terrorists.   Now, at least in this case, it's an ally.
       Obviously, some deal has been made between the U.S. and Syria--the deal being torture.   According to Time, the U.S. is overseeing the " interrogation" of Zammar, which some might claim is a euphemism for overseeing the "torture" of Zammar.
       U.S. "officials"--none of which were identified by name or department in the Time article leaving this reporter wondering about the lack of journalistic attribution  (probably a CIA spokesman)--told Time that "no Americans are in the room with Syrians who interrogate Zammar."  U.S. officials in Damascus, Time reports, submit written questions to the Syrians who relay Zammar's answers back.  The article goes on to say:  "State Department officials like the arrangement because it insulates the U.S. government from any torture the Syrians may be applying to Zammar."

        I guess that's where I put on the brakes.   I have more than a little personal experience regarding torturing suspects under a veil of "non-involvement."   I don't think it protects anyone in the U.S. from getting blood on their hands, and certainly doesn't promote the kind of Vigilance our nation needs to muster to fight Terrorism from higher ground.   What's happening in Syria puts us in the Caves of Terrorism, alongside Osama bin Laden and his pack of murderers and butchers, and all Terrorists who seek to suck the moral blood out of their victims.
         In Vietnam, three-and-a-half decades ago, the same scene played itself out.  Only the names changed.

           Geneva Convention

       Under the Rules of War "torturing" prisoners was prohibited..  The
Geneva Convention prohibits such atrocities to other human beings, and serves as a protection for nations who endorse it so that warriors will be treated humanely--if such a thing is ever possible in war.   Idealism, however, wanes in the face of passion and retribution.
        In Vietnam, we turned the "interrogation" of prisoners over to the South Vietnamese, who, like the Syrians, employed more primal means of gathering information from their "citizens" than we were allowed to exercise under the Geneva Convention.
      During the Vietnam War, the United States Military too had a "hands-off-the-torture" policy.   To swerve around it, as the U.S. Government is doing by "allegedly" passing notes to the Syrian storm troopers, our interrogators stood next to the South Vietnamese and gave direct instructions.   It makes me wonder whether we're really passing notes to the Syrians, or simply whispering in their ears.

        In the most horrific case of torture I recall, we captured prisoners from villages.  The Viet Cong, like the al-Queda, were structured in cells.   Various people had duties--rice collector, weapon stashing, propaganda, sniping--within each village.  The Viet Cong often demanded these roles of the villagers who found it hard to refuse since the penalty was often death.
       As we interrogated "suspects" we created what was called a "Black List," names of villagers who had some affiliation or association with the Viet Cong--"cell members," if you will.   Once a villager's name was put on the "Black List," that individual was treated as a Viet Cong, even if the affiliation was forced upon them.  It also was license to torture.

First Battalion, Seventh Marines

       I was at the First Battalion, Seventh Marines, an outpost surrounded by Viet Cong controlled villages.   Our backs faced a large river that emptied into the South China Sea, and traveling into or out of the battalion headquarters we were greeted by BAR Molly, a nickname for an old Vietnamese lady who would shoot at our trucks with a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and run.    She was a bad shot, but her welcome wagon was hot lead, letting everyone know we were unwanted visitors to her land
       Prisoners were collected almost daily.  They were kept in a small pen, shaped like a cylinder, no more than five feet in diameter, and rising up ten feet, made from thick chicken wire, with no top and only a sandy soil bottom.   It was a temporary holding pen, located a few yards from the river's bank, next to the mess hall tents.

      The mess hall itself was a thatched roof structure, with tables and benches and no windows.  Bamboo pilings shored up the roof and were used as crossbeams to provide shade.   The floor was sandy and the openness allowed any breeze to pass through.
      After breakfast, the area was secured, made off limits, until lunch.   Everyone was told to stay away.
      My job as Marine Combat Correspondent allowed me many privileges few had in combat.  I could call in a helicopter to take me from one place to another, and join any unit at my whim.  My main base was the Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, but as a "roving reporter," headquarters allowed me a free hand to move about and do what I wanted, as long as I delivered the "goods"--great copy about our fight for "freedom."   I delivered.
      I wore no insignia and carried a .45 caliber pistol.   Most people, with the exception of the battalion commander and a few logistical officers, knew who I was unless I introduced myself and told them who I was, who I represented, and my rank.
      I was often mistaken for a CIA, or intelligence officer because I moved with authority and command, always alone, and listened and asked questions.  I made few friends, mostly because I didn't have time to and would go with this patrol or that at the last minute when I heard something interesting was going to happen, or wanted to explore a new facet of war.

       The "off limits" signs intrigued me, as did the general lack of knowledge about why the mess hall area was posted after breakfast.  I'm a "don't-touch-the-wet-paint" kind of guy, and like to test the limits of most everything.  So I sauntered down the hill to the messhall, figuring I would go as far as possible and try to find out what was happening.
      As I entered the messhall area I noted a Vietnamese interpreter sitting with a bald-headed Marine at one of the tables in the messhall.  I had spoken with the interpreter earlier, not telling him who I was, just asking him questions.  He waved at me.   The bald-headed Marine, whom I assumed to be a CID interrogator because they usually shaved their heads and had steely eyes and a grim set to their jaw, glared at me.  I glared back.   It was a momentary stand-off as I waited for his challenge.   He glanced down and continued talking to the interpreter.  I moseyed to the messhall and poured a cup of coffee, and then sauntered around, looking for any signs of a news story or the "secret" to the "off limits" sign.
       That's when I spotted the holding pen.   Three men and a beautiful Vietnamese woman were contained in its cramped space.   Human feces littered the ground inside the pen, and because of its smallness, the prisoners either stood or squatted on their haunches

      The Vietnamese woman caught my eye.  She glared at me, as the CID bald-headed Marine had done, only her glare was more defiant than challenging.  She had a regal neck, her chin jutting up, high cheekbones that suggested she might be from North Vietnam, and had long, black trusses spilling down her back.  The three men kept their eyes deflected, but pressed their palms together in a praying position and bobbed their heads up and down, chattering in Vietnamese.  I knew they were pleading for their lives.
      The young woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, offered no such supplication.   The square of her shoulders, the tilt of her head, her penetrating brown eyes all spelled out her leadership, that she was educated, not just a farmer.  I wondered if she might be a schoolteacher.  The North Vietnamese sent them to villages to teach the children the ABC's of communism, to sharpen their skills in reading, writing.
      I moved back toward the messhall, deciding there was nothing here, and was preparing to climb back up the hill when I heard a scuffle behind me.   The South Vietnamese interpreter was pushing and shoving the young woman toward the thatched-roofed messhall, hitting her with a bamboo stick as he might a recalcitrant water buffalo.
      The woman stumbled, her hands tied behind her back and glanced at me, her eyes holding mine for a moment, raging.  I saw blood dripping from the corner of her lip.
       I turned.  They shoved the woman onto a picnic table bench and the bald-headed Marine and interpreter sat facing her.   I moved casually forward, as though I owned the right to be anywhere I wanted to be, and leaned against the frame of the makeshift messhall, about six feet from the table.   I could see the woman's back and the faces of the Vietnamese and Marine.
       Once again I stood the test of eyes.   The CID officer looked at me again.  I nodded to him this time and took a sip of my coffee.  His eyes roamed over me, searching for some sign as to who I was.   I knew better than to say anything.  Silence held its own power.

      The Vietnamese interpreter began to yell at the woman, barking questions, and then struck her hard against the side of her face, a dull cracking filled the air as flesh and bone crunched.
       The U.S. interrogator asked her questions in Vietnamese.   She said nothing.  She struggled to hold her head upright.   They began to kick her legs under the table as she refused to answer.   Each time she winced they kicked harder and harder.  I heard a snap.
       They stood and spun her around so I could see.   I tried to contain myself.  Her left leg was twisted. I could see the white of tibia sticking out where it ripped through her black ao dai.  Her left cheek was swollen so large her eye was almost invisible. 
       Question after question shot at her.  She refused each one.   Her refusal brought the "killing stick" down.  The South Vietnamese screamed each time he struck her face, neck, arms, head.  She emitted no sounds.
       Blood poured from the wounds, trickling over her face, matting the shiny raven-black hair.    
       I had seen battlefield torture before, but nothing like this.  On the battlefield, when a prisoner was captured, we forced information from him about where the booby traps and snipers were killing our comrades.   It was done in the heat of battle, under the clear and present of being killed if we didn't get the information immediately.   That was different.   Here, there was no clear and present danger, no snipers pinning us down, no land mines waiting to blow us up as we moved forward.
       This was about ego.  This was about her refusal to talk, to answer anything.   Most prisoners under torture spilled their guts, rattled off information, or pleas for mercy, but she issued nothing but defiance.
        The Marine CID officer was nose to nose to her, yelling questions.   She pulled her head back and spat in his face.  He cocked his hand and drove his fist into her face, knocking her down to the ground.  The Vietnamese jumped on her and began to beat her mercilessly with the stick.
        I grabbed the bamboo post I had been leaning on with my left arm, hugging it, and my right hand sneaked down to unholster my .45.   I fought the urge to pull out my weapon and stop the madness, to shove my pistol in their faces and drag the remains of the woman to safety.   My body shook.   I knew I couldn't do that.  I would be court martialed, maybe even considered a traitor for aligning myself with the "enemy." 
       They grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to the center of the hut and threw a rope over the support beam within only a few feet of me.  They tied it to her bound hands and pulled her up.  I heard another snap and saw her grit her teeth as another bone was shattered.  She swayed in the air, suspended like a bloodied butterfly.
       Enraged, the Marine yelled more questions.  The Vietnamese began to smash her body with the stick, again and again.  Her body twisted in a slow circle, the beam creaked.  As her face rotated to face me, I saw her left eye dangling against her cheek.  Her face, once beautiful and dignified with defiance, was swollen beyond recognition.  Her nose was flattened to one side.   Most of her teeth were missing.  She looked at me with that one swollen eye, almost pleading, as though she knew I was being tormented, torn, twisted by what was happening.
      Then the worst feeling I have ever felt in my life rose up within me, a seed exploded that I shudder to remember, that I have tried to disown, deny, expunge from my being ever since that day.
      The Vietnamese interpreter turned to me, face sweating, eyes engorged with the power of brutality over another human being, and stuck out the killing stick.  It was bloodied.  Pieces of her flesh clung to it.
       "Wanna beat her?"
       I was numb.  Part of me had exited my body, the human part, to distance myself from the ugliness and horror transpiring before me.   I looked at the stick.   And then it happened.   My right hand slowly reached out.  My fingers opened.   It was as though the stick were magnetized, drawing my hand to it.  Just as I was about to lace my fingers around it that spirit of humanity in me that had been driven out returned.   The iciness of my soul, the emptiness of any human compassion was flooded by shame and guilt and revulsion.

        I jerked my hand back as though the "killing stick" was a hot poker.   I looked up at the woman's face, her failing single eye staring at me, as though sad I had been consumed by the Beast of Terror, that my soul had almost capitulated to the ultimate ugliness of human nature.
      That's when I turned and ran.   I ran fast and hard up the hill, and at the top I stumbled to my knees and began to vomit, to puke out the bile that had risen up from the caves of human bestiality, that is part of all of us when we uncivilize ourselves, when we allow our morality to be shaped by circumstance and convenience and excuse.
      I remember the taste in my mouth--the taste of human cruelty, the taste of amorality, the taste of a foul Beast of Terror who had risen his ugly head inside me, driven up from the bowels of human deprivation.

       I had become vulnerable to the Jaws of the Beast of Terror.   I let it consume me by becoming complicit in acts of Terror far beyond any moral or ethical justification.  The fetid, foul scent of my ownership of human ugliness made me wretch again and again, hoping to cleanse myself of liability or responsibility for any of the acts I had just witnessed, and for my horrible assimilation into them when my hand reached for the "killing stick."   

 As I knelt in the dirt, clutching my guts, spitting out the bile from my belly, I heard the pop-pop of a pistol.   They had ended it.   Killed her, shown her final mercy.   But they had three others to continue their blood quest upon.  They had until noon, when the messhall would once return to a place for eating, not for torturing.
                                                 * * *
       I relate this story for one purpose.   Within us all, I believe, is the same Beast of Terror that rose up me years ago.   It is a very slithering Beast, that wraps itself around our humanness and waits for certain moments to squeeze us to death.   We can recognize its presence by our hate, anger, resentment, self-pity, self-loathing, envy, jealousy, rage, greed, lust, gluttony, sloth.
       It exists in degrees.   But its purpose is the destruction of our morality--our belief that human beings can rise above the Beast Within.
       When we leap for joy over the thought of Osama bin Laden's head being carried on a stick through the streets of America by President Bush, the Beast's fangs sink into our spines, injecting just a little more venom.
       When we wish ill upon our boss who didn't give us a raise, or envy the person next door for having something we don't, or look in the mirror and hate or dislike what we see, we're letting the coils of the Beast of Terror have free reign to crush us.
        When we're far too busy to sit down with our children and learn their Fears, Intimidations and Complacency, our Beast of Terror lays eggs, not in us, but in our children.   The child becomes the victim of our Complacency, alone with his or her "beasts."

      Today, as these words are written, we are taking part in the torture of a man named Zammar, at the hands of the Syrians, endorsed and probably motivated by us--the citizens of the United States who have authorized our government to "use any means" to end Terrorism.   We are turning our heads.   Our morality is leaving us, as it did me that day many years ago.   The killing stick is being put in our hands, and we don't even realize it.
          And we won't.

          We won't because we are not Vigilant.   We have not taken a stance against our own Beast of Terror.
          If we don't get up in the morning and retake a Pledge Of Vigilance, how can we ever think we can battle our Beast of Terror?  
          The Beast of Terror works within us 24/7.   It never stops.   If you're not sure, ask yourself why Law & Order, and crime shows are so popular.   There's something in all of us--the push-pull between right and wrong, good and bad, beast and civilized, that cannot be denied.
          Terrorism preys on this Beast.   It's goal is to drive us into states of Fear, Intimidation and Complacency.
          The report in Time is one small example.   We are afraid of Terrorism so we agree to the torture.  We are Intimidated by our government because we feel helpless to do anything ourselves so we do not protest taking a human being to a country that has flaunted every principle we stand for to allow them to torture him into compliance.   And, our Complacency involves our "looking the other way," taking no responsibility for our complicity in the acts or methods our government employs.
          Let there be no misunderstanding--I am a warrior.   I have no qualms about fighting the enemy to win, but not at the expense of what we are fighting for.  If we pretend to fight Terrorism as the low-ground of human evolution, we cannot lower our standards for the fight to Terrorism's levels.  There are moral methods of fighting the enemy that can keep us on the high ground, even if such high ground is only an inch taller than the low ground.   It's when our high ground equals the Terrorist's low ground that we come face-to-face with our own Beast of Terror.
         I ask you to think through what I have written and to ask yourself if you believe within you is a Beast of Terror.    Imagine yourself in situations where your power of morality is weakened, and you feel some foreign force within you rising up, producing a foul smell in your civilized nostrils, boiling your blood, shoving out your common sense, your morality, your beliefs in human kindness and justice.      

        If you feel or sense any hint of the Beast of Terror, just think about its thirst to consume you.   Beasts by their nature must be caged.  If you are not attending to your Beast of Terror, then it has the freedom to grow at will.   But if you are a Citizen of Vigilance, a Parent of Vigilance, a Loved One of Vigilance, you know that not only do you have a Beast of Terror within--lurking, maybe sleeping, but always ready to rise up and strike you with Fear, Intimidation and Complacency--but so do your children, your loved ones, and all other human beings.
         To fight this Beast of Terror, we must counter its hunger to eat us from within.   The Pledge of Vigilance is one such critical weapon to keep the Beast in check.   It offers the balance of Courage to replace Fear, Conviction to overpower Intimidation, and Right Action to motivate us out of Complacency.
         I have seen the Beast of Terror.
         I grappled with it in hand-to-hand combat in Vietnam long ago.
        On September 11, 2001, when I was at Ground Zero, I saw it again, rise up out of the bowels of hell.

      I ask you to see yours.  And when you do, fight it.  Take the Shield of Vigilance and hold it up.  The Beast will run.   And keep your Pledge of Vigilance polished.   The Beast never dulls his fangs, and you can never let your Vigilance collect dust.
       Or, perhaps you'll become a guy named Zammar.  Or, maybe, the guy or gal torturing him.  Or, even the one protesting why we shouldn't be Beasts of Terror, but rather Sentinels of Vigilance.    


Go To June 29--Fireflies Of Vigilance    

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