Category Archives: the Terrorists and you


I really don’t know what to say about the various remembrances scheduled today. 

To each of us the experience was different.

The commemoration of a loss is somehow strange, and for all the promises to remember 9/11/2001 forever, we know that won’t happen.  I was in seventh grade when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.  For a decade or so there were commemorations, but those gradually faded becoming fewer and less obvious as time passed.  This coming November 22 you may still find a mention in the newspaper but it will probably be relatively subdued.

December 7, 1941 was called “a day that will live in infamy,” by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, yet the attack on Pearl Harbor is not remembered any more vividly than the fall of the Alamo or the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine.  Even July 20, 1969 is a faded memory; in case you’ve forgotten, that was the day man first stepped on the moon.  History, no matter how significant is still in the past.  We cannot take the event forward into the future.  We can, however, take what we’ve learned and hopefully build on it.

By the time you read this there may be another attack.  There have been warnings about a possible car bomb in either Washington DC or New York.  Since our intelligence services have been the ones telling of the potential attacks, there’s a good chance that the perpetrators either will be caught or abandon or at least change their plans.

The key is that other people want what America has.  It’s not just the material advantages, but the fact that we are a people who are bound not by birth but by an ideal.  We have something to believe in that is both precious and powerful.  When people see themselves as part of something important that links others together, they have a power that others can only imagine.  If you haven’t lately, read the US Constitution – or at least the Bill of Rights.  It’s no wonder others want what we take for granted.

When Americans cried, “Remember the Alamo!” or “Remember the Maine!” they were not advising us to study history.  They used those incidents as a rallying cry to pull Americans together.  For us to put our own wants and desires behind the good of our nation.  For us to take on the responsibilities that go hand in hand with the rights we enjoy.

America is not perfect; anything that relies on human beings cannot be.  However, with all its warts and imperfections, it is better than any other human effort I’ve ever seen, heard or read about.  Each time we’ve been sucker punched we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and taken on the challenge that faced us.  As we look back on 9/11/2001 that is the lesson that we have learned; now we need to carry it forward with renewed commitment.

He Carries a Badge

It was 7:30 Monday morning.  It was damp and it was foggy, just like it seems to be every Monday morning in San Francisco.  Some of us have to work regardless of what the weather is doing or how it makes us feel.  Me, I carry a badge and I serve and protect the people of San Francisco.

“Morning, Frank.”  It was my boss coming around the corner.  Fortunately I work the streets so I don’t have to deal with him much.  Nothing against him, I just have a problem with authority.  I guess that’s why I became a cop.  I didn’t like what I saw; the boss was not alone.  The guy trailing him looked young – mid-twenties.  He was wearing a cheap suit.  It was new, but it was cheap.  He’d either just gotten out of prison, or…

“Frank, I want you to meet Dennis, your new partner,” he said.  Dennis extended his right hand and gave me a big smile.

“Let me guess,” I said without extending my own hand.  “U.C. Berkley.”  He awkwardly let his own hand drop to his side desperately trying to look as casual as he could.  He didn’t pull it off.  He opened his mouth to answer and when nothing came out he just nodded.  I sighed, turned and walked toward the door.

“Don’t just stand there,” the boss said, “follow him.”  Like a little puppy he chased after me.  At least most Berkley grads are house trained.  I walked up to my unmarked car.  Unmarked, hell.  Who else but plainclothes police drive fuel efficient hybrid cars with rows of extra lights mounted in the rear window?  Dennis went over to the passenger side and tried the handle, which was locked.  I made sure he could see my look of disdain as I pressed “unlock” on the remote.  He got in and I backed out of the parking spot.

“I hear you’re hard on partners,” he began.

“You heard right,” I replied, then added.  “Of course it’s not a fair statement since none of them stick around very long.”

“Why’s that?”

 I slammed on the brakes. 

“Look, kid,” I answered as “It’s a rough world out there and nobody likes us.  Some guys opt for uniformed patrol or homicide; some work vice.  Damned few can take the heat we get in the Politically Correct Police.  I could hear him gulp.  I turned left and hadn’t gone three blocks before I saw our first problem.

“Hit it!” I told the new kid.  He at least knew how to turn on the lights and siren.  I followed the Chevy into the driveway.  Leaving the lights flashing, I opened my door, unsnapped my holster and put my hand on the grip of my 9 mm.  The woman in the car was staring straight ahead, although I had seen the backup lights flashed as she put her car into park.

“Put down the cellphone and get out of the car,” I barked.  “Leave the coffee cup in the holder and set the makeup down on the seat.”  She nervously complied.   “Is this your house?” I asked.  She nodded agreement.  “Are you Italian?” I continued.

“On my mother’s side, yes, she replied.

“Lady, I don’t care if you put on talk on your cellphone while driving, or if you drink your Grande Mocha Java half-caf half-decaf with extra low fat whip cream, or even if you’re applying your mascara.  However, you need to return at least one hand to the steering wheel occasionally.  You were so busy gesticulating that neither hand was anywhere near the steering wheel.

“I’m sorry officer, it won’t happen again.”  She had nice legs, so I decided to let her off with the warning.  “That your recycling bin?”  Again she nodded.

“You’ve got some cottage cheese containers in there.  City only does plastics numbered 1 or 2 – that’s a 5.  And lose the plastic grocery bags – they mess up the sorting machinery at the recycling center.”  Without looking back I re-entered my police vehicle and drove away.  Dennis didn’t say much; it takes a while for the new guys to get used to the steamy underbelly of the bay area.  As we continued on, the radio crackled. 

“Report of inappropriate instruction at St. Jerome’s Grade School.  Third grade.  Room 311.”  Dennis started to reach for the dashboard.

“No,” I told him.  “We go in quiet for this one.”  Rookies.

St. Jerome’s had been around since my grandparents learned to read.  Generally it was okay, but it’s surprising how even the most innocent of places can brew trouble.  As we walked in I flashed my badge to the hall monitor.  Room 311 was not too far down the hall.  I walked in without knocking.

I looked around, and immediately saw it.  Dennis was clueless.  That’s okay, he’ll learn.

“Everybody please sit,” I commanded.  I turned to Dennis.  “You got the door.”  The nun sat at the desk at the front of the room.  There was a small nameplate that read “Sister Mary Agnes.”  I knew that wasn’t her real name.  Nuns always change their name when they take their vows.  I pointed to the book sitting next to her right elbow.

“Is that yours?”

“It most certainly is,” she replied unapologetically.  “I’ve had it for years.  It was a gift from my father when I was a little girl.”

“Must be hard to remember your father as a terrorist,” I offered without apology.  She just stared at me.  “Did you read it to them?”  I looked at the kids in their seats and it was obvious she did.  I picked up the book.

“Sorry kids, but this is forbidden.  If this guy was alive today he’d be in big trouble.  Maybe he didn’t blow things up but he did far worse.  We’re not talking about littering, here or even pollution – we’re talking eco-terrorism. 

“Introducing flora outside its native area is harmful.  Non-native organisms disrupt the natural ecosystem.  You’ve read about jumping catfish taking over whole lakes?  You know about zebra mussels?  Alligators in the New York sewer system?  It’s the same thing.  It’s wrong and it’s wrong to teach about it.

“If you’re not an environmental expert, you’d best just leave plants and animals where they are.  Better yet, don’t mess with them at all.  Am I clear?”  Thirty one heads silently nodded assent.  I started for the door with the book.

“C’mon, Dennis,”  I said as we headed out of the classroom.  I showed him the book – Johnny Appleseed.

Copyright 2011 SF Nowak – All Rights Reserved

Suicide Bombers

I read a story today in which it was claimed that a Russian suicide bomber who planned to kill hundreds on New Year’s Eve died from a premature explosion.  Apparently the detonator for the bomb was her cell phone, and a spam message triggered it while she was still home.

Suicide bombers are a foreign concept to Americans.  We believe that when an authority figure demands, Stop, or I’ll shoot!” people stop to avoid being shot.  When Dirty Harry says, “Go ahead, make my day,” we perceive the threat.  Not so with suicide bombers.

Westerners believe and honor those who make the ultimate sacrifice, and in the Christian belief system we’re taught “There is no greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for a friend.”  On the other hand to intentionally destroy one’s self in order to inflict suffering on others is just abhorrent.  For these terrorists it’s not the suicide that is the intended outcome; it is the physical destruction of some and the mental anguish and intimidation of countless others.  The great deed, in their minds, apparently is that destruction; their own death is just a means to that end.  That is why some believe these people are misnamed – they should be called homicide bombers.

We’ve all heard the stories about how some of these extremists believe that they’ll be immediately transported to paradise, met by 72 virgins and such.  I have two problems with that concept.  First let me clearly state that I claim no expertise in the writings of the Q’ran.  I have had Muslim friends tell me that it does not sanction such acts, and that may well be true.  Having said that, as a Christian who has studied the Bible, I know that my understanding of it is extremely limited.  I suspect that there may be no human who is capable of fully understanding the mind of God.  However, I have seen many people point to the Bible and claim that they do comprehend it and the meaning they find is very different from the one I understand.  Usually their interpretation involves why a particular person, place, animal or thing is evil and will be damned to eternal torment.  I believe that among Muslims there are those who use the Q’ran to justify their personal or political purposes. People who use their scripture to justify hate or to inflict destruction, pain and death worship a different God than I do.

The second issue that I have is that those who advocate and preach martyrdom seem to focus on getting others to do the dying.  Great leaders lead from the front.  If I was convinced that it was an immediate transfer to eternal happiness, bliss and such I think I’d be the first in line, along with my entire family.  One might have doubts about their sincerity. 

My personal belief is that there is a God, He is good and He loves us.  All of us.  Even those who can’t say “Shibboleth,” or look different, or whatever.  I also believe that things end up going His way no matter what we do.  It does not surprise me that there is good in the most unlikely places and unlikely circumstances can result in hundreds of people being spared; even spam can result in good.

So (in alphabetical order), Peace, Salaam, Shalom.

And the Winner Is…

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
– Attributed to Ben Franklin

There are a number of large, ugly and political topics in the news today. They are ugly, of course, because they are political, and because they are political they will be surrounded with rhetoric reduced to sound bites, and a lot of good old fashioned blithering.
One of these topics is the current situation with regard to the Transportation Security Administration and its enhanced inspections by either an imaging device or a thorough frisking by a TSA agent.
First, some of the factual issues. There are two types of enhanced imaging devices being deployed. Both produce an image that is essentially an electronic strip search. The more graphic type of imaging device uses low dose radiation and relies on backscatter. According to the TSA, this has been “deemed safe.” In my younger days I worked in medical radiology and know that many of the earliest medical practitioners suffered bad effects because the devices they used were assumed to be safe, but were not. Some of this was based on calculations that predicted a “maximum allowable dose” of radiation. This was when dealing with radiation was in its infancy so they made a guess and based the allowable dose on a fraction of the amount that would cause to turn skin red (erythema). It was later determined that this dose was way too high to be safe (but notice they called it allowable – not “safe”).
Sometimes things are deemed allowable or safe because we don’t know how the story ends – it’s only after years of experience with an entity that we are able to decide whether it’s safe or not. Early Radiologists, the physicians who specialize in radiology were the ones who inadvertently became the test subjects. As they got older, some radiologists lost fingers to cancer; I still remember one radiologist with whom I worked who, when chatting, would pull out his pocket knife and calmly whittle lesions off his hands. These ill effects were attributed to the Radiologists placing their hands into the x-ray field during fluoroscopy to manipulate a patient’s position. Fluoroscopy uses an x-ray beam to produce a live image on a screen, and early fluoroscopic units used many times higher amounts of x-radiation than would be allowed today. Educated professionals utilizing the data and scientific techniques available at the time did not believe there was significant risk.
One key factor about radiation exposure is that it is cumulative. Your body can be affected more or less by the sum of all the radiation you receive throughout your life.
The TSA scanners utilize back-scatter. Now I know just enough physics to be dangerous, but I was always taught that x-radiation cannot be reflected. It can pass through an object or it can be absorbed. Sometimes it is almost a combination of the two due to a principle called Compton’s effect. When ionizing radiation interacts with matter, it gives up some of its energy to the matter which results in a change of direction of the x-ray travel. The direction of change is more or less random and called secondary radiation or scatter. If the scatter has sufficient energy, when it interacts with other matter the process is repeated. Back scatter is the scatter that travels more or less in the direction from which the x-ray beam originated.
In the backscatter imaging devices it would appear that some amount of ionizing energy is interacting with the matter (i.e. the airline passenger). At the very least this cannot be expected to have an overall positive effect on these passengers, and may be detrimental.
The media have reported about intelligence sources in Saudi Arabia or Yemen who have identified terrorist efforts, and sometimes the terrorists themselves. Fortunately this has halted some terrorist efforts in the early stages. On the other hand, I’m not aware of terrorist efforts that have been foiled the TSA. While enforcement agencies do not like to tip their hand when they figure out what the bad guys are doing, things do leak out. One might expect a few strategic leaks about the TSA’s successes particularly while this issue is in the headlines.
Now to the philosophical aspects.
First, the TSA agents at the gate get their marching orders from the hierarchy of a government bureaucracy, so the poor schmuck at the checkpoint doesn’t have a lot of choice. Give the economy, would you make waves and possibly lose a steady paycheck, excellent benefits and a promising retirement? So let’s all agree that the front line TSA grunts are probably just as thrilled with this as travelers are.
And now the second and more important key philosophical point, which will involve some role playing. Let’s pretend that you and I are terrorists and that we hate America. Imagine us having this conversation.
Me: “We’ve attacked and destroyed their building yet the Americans have only become stronger. How can we possibly win against these people?”
You (and notice that I gave you all the good lines): “We develop a plan so that every American makes a complete fool of himself. Let’s make them so frightened that they WILLINGLY let the government take naked pictures of them and frisk them like common criminals. If we can make them grovel to such a pathetic level, we have surely won!”
Is it game, match and point for the bad guys? You tell me.

Copyright 2010 S.F. Nowak all rights reserved