Swans Commentary » swans.com May 7, 2012  



On Guard


by Peter Byrne


A Monologue



"At 9/11 Memorial, Police Raise Fears of Suicide."
The New York Times, February 16, 2012


(Swans - May 7, 2012)   I stand here with my eyes on the edge of the still water and square my shoulders like a bulwark against evil. But it doesn't work. My bulwark days are over. The pool is impregnable, except to a gummy sort of fat snail. Evildoers never come near this place. What would they sabotage, my boredom? When people ask me what I do, I no longer say "security." That used to get me more than respect. In a breathy whisper, it raised the eyebrows of adventurous females. No more. The last time I tried it on a bar girl she wanted to know exactly what I made safe in the city. I told her and she came back with, "Oh, so you're the watchman."

What a difference a half dozen years make. In Iraq my uniform had style, not like this mechanic's overall with a teddy bear's head on one lapel. Out there we stood taller than the military and the natives actually took us for the cream of the army. The difference was that our morale and our pay were better. We had better builds too, having been hired for them. In the forces you might get men who had grown up on steroids and pumping iron, but you also had weaselly types like bookkeepers who'd lost the pencil from behind their ear.

There was a reason our operation topped the Pentagon's. Our bosses were all business, and businessmen have to be on the prodding edge. The army wins a battle or loses a battle. The generals can always explain why whatever happens has to go in the victory column. But corporations have stockholders and they know a win from a loss. The price of their stock is hard fact, not some brass hat's snow job.

What we wore, like everything that works in the USA, mixed corporate know-how with the samurai touch. The men we protected were pioneering free-enterprise in Iraq. We were their indispensable complement. You could call our guys their right-hand men, but we were always on the left as well, and before and behind. Our tailored outfits had all the seriousness of a three-piece suit for the office with a don't-mess-with-me flare in the jacket.

It was embarrassing how we outclassed the Army. For one thing we never shot one another or went in for revenge, interrogation, or torture. What businessman would waste his time on that stuff? We gunned our way out of trouble and moved on from power breakfast to executive lunch. There was always a pause after negotiations when one of us brought in the briefcase of bribe money. The Iraqi hustlers loved us.

It wasn't only in logistics we beat the soldier boys. Our hardware and sidearms were better than government issue. Many a time we argued about that in the Green Zone bars with zonked-out NCOs. They'd point to the 'copters up in the air and we'd tell them to go see the mangled Humvees out on the roads. The dummies always ended by bragging about the danger money they got. But the deals we could do after hours made their extras look like spare change. We were buddies with top CEOs and our presence kept conglomerate America rolling ahead. That gave us a shine. We had a real mission whereas the boys in khaki didn't know what they were doing out there.

Back here Stateside, anti-terrorism has no oomph. For super qualified people like me there's no money in it, either. The business community isn't behind it, which leaves security in the hands of the politicos and their PR men. The more they turn up the volume, the less anyone listens. The F.B.I. bumbles along engineering attacks on something now called the Homeland and then undoes them presto without a drop of blood spilt. What kind of scare is that? Nobody listens, nobody applauds. Grandmothers feel safe with a sleepy fox terrier on their lawn. The current script is no scarier than the Little Red Riding Hood yarn. Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? Nobody. Throw him a dog biscuit.

To my mind there'll be no improvement until America returns to first principles. The Founders got it right. "Privatize," they said, "the business of America is business." That, in our bigger world, means the biggest businesses. Until the corporations take anti-terrorism in hand, I'll still only be a watchman. We ought to goose the patriotism of the corporate honchos. Why not a friendly takeover of Homeland Security? If they don't accept the tender offer, get tough and hit them with one of those hostile bids.

We've got corporate raiders so why not warrior corporations? Security may not figure large on balance sheets but there's no clash of civilizations without it. Where would the country be with no bad guys? And how do you get real snarling evil without the highest level of entrepreneurship that only corporate governance can muster? Without some Mickey Mouse foreigners waving their fists, the public will relax. The whole shebang will stop turning over.

So here I am standing tall in the flat country counting the leaves falling into the pool. When the drain's in danger of being blocked, I do a report, and some unemployables with long rakes come to the rescue. That's the kind of action we see here. It's a complete bust after booming Baghdad where we lost sleep sweeping cash into our kit bags for shipment home. I could be replaced by a video camera and a smoke alarm. I'm safeguarding a rectangular pool and an empty pavilion that some dandy architect doodled out in his lunch break. I'm protecting it from visitors who come to admire it. At a loss for what it's all about, they tend to stop gawking and light up. Nix, this is a no smoking zone. That's the one thing our mayor made clear in his dedication speech -- no smoking at all. He ranted on about unhygienic barbarians. You'd think he'd built a mausoleum for some big cancerous lung.

It's not only because of the plastic teeth in his skull-wide smile that our city's top banana is the longest serving mayor ever. So, believe it or not, was his father before him. Did one prepare the throne for the other? While you chew over that, consider their family plan. It started way back when other orators only had a dream. Their bright idea was to get voters scared. Did they enjoy civil unrest? Of course not -- no one would vote for that. His police force played their part. Not that the potbellied boys in blue had any thinking to contribute, but they knew how to take orders. As long as they didn't have to unseat their fat carcass from the prowl car too often they had nothing against raising a heavy hand.

With ex-alderman's finesse, the plan started at the other end, not the violent one. Evil was out there somewhere cowering amongst the public and the job was to find it. The daddy mayor always ended his pep talks with a famous line that once almost got him into the Senate. He sent his special squad out on to the streets with a hoarse, "And if you can't find it, you come back with it anyhow!" He swore the city was a hotbed. The squad's job was to find out who exactly kept the bedclothes warm.

That was easy enough in the 1980s. Washington set the theme. Subversion was down there chomping at the grass roots of our healthy lawn. Ours is a college town and the turmoil churned up by books was a permanent danger. Imagine, the professors couldn't agree among themselves. So you could hardly blame their students for coming up with a lot of risky notions. There are evils and evils of course. The Red scare was always a front-runner in those years. But it involved a lot of stuff that was over the heads of the special squad. These cops weren't going to stay home nights and pore over three-page newspapers without pictures. It was wise to sic them for a start on an evil close to their hearts that needed no homework.

The mayor's office came up with clues to an academic porno ring. The papers soon talked of a "tenured smut empire." There was interest, lively interest, raising voices of moral reprobation from individuals most people thought had been buried long before, together with their libido. Spies at the campus came up with names. A lecturer and brace of graduate students were brought in for questioning that ended in hilarity and a lawsuit. Attention shifted to a collegiate prostitution ring. But the assistant librarian under suspicion turned out to be the key voice in her church choir. She challenged the mayor's English usage till he shut up. The squad was called off when the city hall deep-throat was arrested for flashing in a shopping mall.

Still, as far as producing thrills for the general public, the down-with-sex campaign was a modest success. You couldn't say the same for the mayor's crusade to save our town from Soviet Communism. He got the squad up early when their lucidity was at its peak and made them check out the grade school readers. You know: "My name is Jane. My ball is blue. I call my dog Max." "Max?" What kind of American name was that for a dog? They also had to read a couple of books in the "I Was A Communist" vein. But cops are slow readers. Before they got through the memoirs of Stalin's daughter the boom was over. It was 1989. The mayor celebrated and insisted his squad's photos of Che Guevara look-alikes had been the tipping point.

There followed a slack period in the 1990s. It takes time to dress up a scarecrow. The mayor couldn't do anything with Slobodan Milosevic. Our town was full of Serbs and Croats and a gaff one way or the other could lose an election. But good times were coming for hysteria. Folks had never heard that there were a billion and a half Muslims in the world. The news hit them hard, widening their horizons no end. The mayor told them what this horde had got up to in New York City. His ace in the hole was going to be one lone wolf out of that huge pack. It was pretty strange for me since as a boy I'd known the individual in question and in my childish way had always been transfixed by the gaps where his two canines should have been.

Wiley had been a fixture in the old neighborhood. We kids would chase after him when he pushed a cart down the alley shouting, "Any old iron?" He must have been about thirty in those days, but to us he seemed like an old man. My father said he was a Potawatomi Indian and to keep away from him because he stank. It was true he gave off a many-colored stench, strongly alcoholic toward the top. He lived in a scrap yard that was his main enterprise at the time. We kids would go there supposedly to mock him and his funny accent but actually because we liked talking to him, a real Red Indian.

The first thing Wiley always told us was that he wasn't an Indian at all, but a full-blooded Gypsy. We found that was even better. We'd buy broken toys from him and curious items of no use. He was sharp dealer and would spend an hour haggling over the price of half a monkey wrench. For us it was all fun When I told my mother how shrewd Wiley was, she said, "The Mexican? He'll never come to anything. He drinks." She was right and wrong. At one point he ran newspaper home deliveries in our area and had a dozen teenagers on bikes working for him. There was some trouble over his reneging on payment to the kids and the paper's circulation department closed him down. He left town for a year or two and came back cleaned up and apparently reformed. Rumor had it he'd been in jail for selling stolen car tires. But he managed to land the franchise for the municipal soft drink stand in the park. This seemed to flourish. In no time, though, he was caught selling marijuana under the table and lost his license.

It was this investigation that led to a discovery that changed Wiley's life, and, you might say, American history, or anyway the history of our town. When they dug out his birth certificate, his given name turned out to be not Wiley, but Abdullah. Just then our mayor and his special squad were straining to get into the anti-terrorism game and Wiley's sinister and city-hall-certified moniker was the front door. The Feds and the FBI lent a hand, but our mayor, ever a city rights man and proudly independent in the matter of scams, hogged the spotlight.

A dark-skinned operative arrived in town. He had a cute foreign accent with a New Jersey twist. The mayor wanted him to wear a turban and to ask for chopsticks in the one diner where Wiley-Abdullah hadn't been barred from yet. The stranger pooh-poohed the advice. He and our black sheep made friends bareheaded, with knives and forks, over the all-day special breakfast. The subsequent report noted that both men refused bacon at their second breakfast on the same day, eaten at twilight. The counter-man added that a bankroll made its way in the direction of Wiley-Abdullah's hip pocket. The two conspirators then exchanged a sinister handshake that looked oriental.

Wiley-Abdullah's trail was picked up in the evening. He was well sloshed in the one tavern where they tolerated him if he kept off the bar stools and sat at a table against the wall. The stranger rendezvoused, bringing a knapsack. Wiley-Abdullah felt the quality of the canvas and seemed to appreciate the gift. He was clearly having trouble keeping awake. The report recalled the suspect's marijuana past and mentioned Afghan opium. It also noted that Wiley-Abdullah was two days unshaven, which could well have indicated aspirations toward one of those Jihad beards. The two exited on their feet at midnight. The stranger had wheels of an inconspicuous and anonymous no-name brand. He dropped Wiley-Abdullah at the curb in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars monument.

Wiley-Abdullah almost took the sting out of the sting when he had trouble working a cigarette lighter. A chain smoker, he usually cadged the first light of the day. But snapping repeatedly he finally transferred a flame to the fuse sticking out of the knapsack. He then sat on the foot of a brass U.S. Marine hoping to get some rest. In fact he could have slept through the noise of the explosion, which was of the dull thud sort that we kids used to call a squib when produced by a firecracker.

A homeless guy lived camped with his mutt around the other side of the victorious Marines. The noise, such as it was, startled him. Teenagers had been coming around nightly to give him a friendly beating. Now he picked up man's best friend and ran across the road. A truck, not a big one, a medium sized one, flattened both the Master, His Voice, and the canine music-lover.

The special squad who were parked nearby waddled over in a sweat. They whisked Wiley away and when the ride was over and he got out of the car between two obese officers, he had become simply Abdullah X, terrorist and failed suicide bomber. Poor Wiley who didn't know the Holy Book from the Yellow Pages would have time to squirm for life, like a bookworm, in Federal clink. His pants held up by a homemade belt, he had attacked the Homeland.

His honor the mayor lost no time. He must have had the plan for his Memorial to the Martyrs in his back pocket. The pavilion went up before Abdullah's pro bono lawyer advised him to square up to his destiny like an American patriot and refuse to cause confusion in the public mind with any not-guilty nonsense.

In the flat country, then, and standing tall, I try to master the skill of sleeping with my eyes open. It's a watchman's fate. After a year here by the pool I can smell smoke fifty feet away. Hell, I can smell the sulphur flicked from a match head at twenty-five. On my last visit to the mayor's office I talked about a transfer. Couldn't they let me chase perverts in the park or dog owners who refused to bag their pup's droppings? Just watching wasted my experience of high-level security.

They were surprised by my bellyaching. The mayor's secretary sat me down in a corner. She wasn't angry, only astonished that I took my job so lightly. She spoke to me in plain words as to a child:

"Do you see this folder," she said. "It's direct from D.C. Look, it's marked urgent. We are told to take special care with security, yes, security -- your job -- around all memorials to victims of terrorism -- like the mayor's."

"Special care, why?"

"Hmmph!" she said. "For the simple reason that people like to end it all in those places and they're doing it over the whole country. It's an epidemic. If the mayor had to build his whatsit again there'd be no water, just a Zen garden."

"But our pool is only two feet deep."

"No matter. These troublemakers are ingenious. They hold their heads down."

"My god! I'll keep my eyes open."

But I've never really closed them. I'm looking forward to collaring my first visitor come here for a head-first dive. Till now I've only grabbed one customer. He threw his fag end in the water before I could stop him. I was ready to cuff him, but he said sorry and fished it out.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 7, 2012