30, 2002—Ground Zero Plus
Torturing The Soul Of Vigilance
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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
* * *
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
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
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
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
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
To June 29--Fireflies Of Vigilance
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