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by Patrick Patterson, New York Correspondent.  [May 2, 2003]





[]  Last month I was startled to see armed soldiers in my New York subways, wearing jungle camouflage and black berets, cradling M-16 machine guns.  I know we were under Orange Alert, but the city's draconian gun control laws forbid honest citizens from carrying even handguns (well-connected celebs excepted) yet here were men (no women) with machine guns and black berets.

Black berets. That mean Special Forces, no?

There is something creepy -- and unhealthy to a free civil society -- about stationing machine gun-totting soldiers in civilian areas. One expects that in Third World banana republics, Communist tyrannies, and dystopian post-apocalyptic B-movies. But more ominous is how my fellow New Yorkers sheepishly accepted this new normalcy. Local media barely reported it, although blogger George Paines reported spotting subway soldiers as early as February 16, 2003.

Heightened security creates heightened paranoia. Neighbor begins to fear neighbor, especially those who look different. Citizens glance nervously at their soldiers, afraid of "looking suspicious."  (I suppose it's how black men have always felt about the civilian police.) And soldiers look with paranoia upon their fellow citizens. How could they not? They're kids, trained and conditioned for bloody action, yet naive and inexperienced.

A few days later, while riding the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station, I spotted a NY State Trooper. I'd never seen State Troopers patrolling the LIRR. I wanted to photograph him, even ask to take his picture. But what would he think? Even with a press ID, would I look suspicious? Would the act seem suspicious? Would it justify detaining me? Not wanting to risk it, I photographed him from behind.

As it happened, I was right to be paranoid.



Upon arriving at Penn Station, I saw more Special Forces. Two soldiers beside a NYPD cop. I thought to photograph them from a distance, but again, that might look suspicious. Then I decided, I'm an American, well within my rights to speak to "our troops." Perhaps I was silly to be paranoid.  Maybe if I talked to them, they'd prove to be friendly, and even eager to pose for shots.

As I wound my way through the crowd, our eyes met. The soldiers saw me approaching and grew tense. (Most New Yorkers seemed to be avoiding eye contact).

"Excuse me," I asked one soldier. "Can I take your picture?"

"No," he tersely replied. "Sorry, but no."

Okay, no picture. Even as he spoke, his partners were scanning me, eying my press ID. I thought to ask if I might photograph them from neck down, no faces, just the uniforms and guns. But the soldiers already seemed too uptight. (The cop appeared less so.)

Up the escalator, on the next level, I saw three more Special Forces troops manning a desk. One appeared to be an officer, but I avoided taking pictures.

Not that all New Yorkers avoid approaching men with machine guns. A friend of a friend approached a soldier and asked, "Is that loaded with real bullets?"

"Yes, it is," the soldier replied.

And not every New Yorker feels discomforted by soldiers in the subways.  Some feel more secure, though I suspect it's a false security. Soldiers are conditioned to "break things and kill people," whereas civilian police are trained to "protect and serve." Soldiers are pumped to rack up a high body count.  Police are trained to minimize casualties.

Soldiers have a poor record in peace-keeping, or policing, overseas. I doubt they'd do better here in New York.

Then there are those Americans who thrill to any display of U.S. military might, who want our streets forever filled with soldiers and flags. They miss the "new patriotism" of October 2001, and wish we were forever on "heightened alert" and that this "war on terror" would never end. Those folks are the scariest of all.




* Self-Fullfilling Prophecy

Subway soldiers and other "in your face" security measures may do little to effectively combat terror, but they're great at a justifying still more security measures. People see the soldiers, so they assume there's a reason for soldiers, so they accept still more soldiers and more security and even a "Patriot Act" and then a "Patriot Act 2" ...

It's the old logic: "He was arrested, so he must be guilty."

The post-9/11 version: "Our liberties are restricted, so there must be a terrorist threat. We're bombing X nation, so X must have done something bad."

I know "everything changed" after 9/11. Yet I don't know it. It's what I'm supposed to know, just like I'm supposed to know that Oceania has always been at war with Iraq (or is it Iran?), but what I really know is that principles (as affirmed by America's Founding Fathers) are immutable. Immutable, as in, never changing. That's what principles, Natural Law, and inalienable rights mean, no? (Justice Thomas seemed to think so when he discussed Natural Law during his confirmation hearings.)

If "everything changed" after 9/11, does that include our Constitution, Natural Law, and the inalienable rights granted by our Creator (as cited by the Declaration of Independence)?

I know that last month we were under Orange Alert, whatever that means -- but there's the rub. We don't know what it means. Even before the U.S. attacked Iraqi, we were told "there's a war on," a secret war without fronts. A secret war that may last decades.

And being a secret war, we won't really know when it is over, but until then, we'll just have to accept new restrictions on privacy and liberty, and more to come, because "everything changed." Don't blame the government for cracking down, blame the terrorists.

Historically, people have sheepishly surrendered liberties whenever they believed there was an outside threat. The Nazis used the Reichstag fire as their first excuse to suppress freedom, and Stalin and Mao had their "counterrevolutionary" bogeymen. Even in Animal Farm, Squealer justified every restriction on freedom with warnings that, otherwise, "farmer Jones would come back."

After the fall of Communism, terrorism became the all-purpose excuse to restrict freedom. Clinton used Oklahoma City and "domestic terrorism" to try and reign in the internet and "hate radio." Bush has 9/11 and "Islamo-terrorism" for his Patriot Act.

Sadly, while many American Democrats and Republicans favor liberty, it's never at the same time.  Both groups defend liberty -- when the government is controlled by the opposing party. Yet whenever the President is one's own, Democrats and Republicans both insist "it's unpatriotic not to support our President." Sheryl Crow entertained troops under Clinton, but turned peacenik under Bush. And many Republicans opposed her both times.

And though they won't admit it, I've heard many a Democrat say just that, in those exact words, throughout the Clinton years: "How can you call yourself a patriot if you oppose our President/government?" Those were the years when Democrats had their head in the sand about Waco and Elian Gonzalez and Wag the Dog bombings, and Republican civil libertarians were smeared as "the black helicopter crowd."

Today, of course, many Democrats have (temporarily) returned to their pre-Clinton civil libertarian views. (They would have cheered an identical Patriot Act under Clinton/Reno.) And many Republicans now insist that it's unpatriotic to "bash Bush." (They would have hollered had Clinton/ Reno offered the Patriot Act.)

In the meantime, we have soldiers patrolling civilian areas, ever less privacy, and more Patriot Acts on the horizon. Nor will it end, not until the majority of Americans stop demonizing each other, stop hero- worshipping their respective "party leaders", and get on the same page -- at the same time.

Copyright 2003 by


Patrick Patterson lives in New York. He has previously covered the February peace march and the events at Ground Zero for the Hollywood Investigator. His experiences as a Los Angeles based paparazzi are revealed in Hollywood Witches.

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