Harold Jaffe's docufiction

by Harold Jaffe

cover image of Terror-Dot-Govfrom Terror-Dot-Gov
(Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2005)

It was the day after 9/11 and all over the Third World the children woke up crying. In Hyderabad and Islamabad, in East Timor and Dacca, in Dar es Salaam and Qena, in Kano and Baghdad. In thousands of cities, villages, hamlets, backwaters the children woke up crying.

     When Heather Gosling came up with the idea of using weeds as weapons in the war against terror, she figured most people would call it a joke.
     But the federal government didn't laugh.
     Now, armed with a $1.5 million dollar grant from the Pentagon, the demure, middle-aged Texas Lutheran College biologist is trying to genetically engineer plants to change color rapidly when they sense a toxic biological or chemical agent.
     If Dr. Gosling's plan works, the technology could be used to turn forest oaks, backyard shrubs, pond algae, even festooned Christmas trees into sentinels in the war against terrorism.
     Ironically, the most sensitive houseplant to toxic agents is arguably the most common, the philodendron, especially Philodendron domesticum.
     Gosling explained her anti-terror experiments this way: "A lot of us scientists started thinking differently after 9/11.
     "More patriotically, you might say."
     However, when she ran her idea by the Defense Department, she didn't know what to expect.
     But Defense Department Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's assistant in charge of "private sector interface grants," Benton "Buzz" Limpkin, proved receptive.
     As Gosling recounts the story in her just-released book, Houseplants Against Terror (American Enterprise, $38), "Buzz Limpkin, behind his outsized Pentagon steel and glass desk, poured himself some black coffee from his Sharper Image thermos, regarded me narrowly through his gun-shooter gray eyes, took a long sip, set down his red, white and blue mug, then said in his quiet, Yale-by-way-of-North Carolina tenor:
     "'Shoot, let's give it a trah, because if it does work, it could make a heckuva difference in our war against terrorism.'"
     Under the terms of Gosling's grant, Buzz Limpkin gave her 18 months to figure out how to make plants tattle on terrorists.
     In Houseplants Against Terror, which has already climbed to number 17 on the USA Today Best Seller list, Gosling spells out certain fascinating details of her scientific experiments.
     For example, if one of her sentinel plants signals a deadly nerve agent such as sarin, it would probably be too late to prevent people in the vicinity from dying horribly of sarin poisoning.
     But if her plant signals anthrax, smallpox or plague, most non-moronic Americans would know they were exposed before displaying symptoms.
     Which would allow them ample time to ingest potent FDA-approved antibiotics and duct-tape themselves into their condos with their significant other, low-carb snacks, cell-phone, TV and Internet.
     Dr. Gosling explains in her book that she is not permitted by law to employ real biological and chemical terrorist agents in her experiments, which are aimed at causing the rapid breakdown of chlorophyll.
     Instead she uses the hormone estrogen because it prompts the "de-greening circuit" in plants.
     Which has provoked such good-natured jibes from her colleagues as:
     "Estrogen could be a poisonous terrorist agent."
     "Beware of menopausal women bearing government grants!"
     Dr. Gosling concludes her volume with the bold prediction that "one day in the not too distant future, everyone in America, irrespective of race, religion or gender, will be able to use a houseplant, such as the familiar Philodendron domesticum both as beautification and as an early-warning system to signal a terrorist attack.
     "God willing."
     In actuality, Heather Gosling's Texas Lutheran laboratory is just one among scores of high-tech labs springing up across the country where scientists and entrepreneurs are furiously competing to invent products that will help the government respond to another terrorist attack.
     And, of course, reap the handsome rewards, since not only are the government grants bountiful, those dollars generate yet more dollars from the private sector, which tends to jump on the au courant capitalist band-wagon.
     This is referred to as money following money.

It was the day before 9/11 and throughout the Third World the children woke up crying. In Kuala Lumpur and Kandahar, in Phnom Penh and El Karak and Mogadishu and Gaza. And in the Third World that exists in the First World--the margins and inner cities, the invisible ghettoes and reservations stretching from the Big Apple to the Golden State, up and down the coasts--the invisible children woke up crying.

     Meanwhile, in Nutley, New Jersey, a corporate entomologist named Poorwill is trapping beetles, crickets, bees and moths to determine whether they can be used as environmental monitors of a biological or chemical attack.
     In Needles, California, free-lance scientist-entrepreneur, Joe Ray Goldeneye (he's Mohave Indian on his father's side) has worked since the day after 9/11 to see whether insects can deliver information about hazardous or deadly agents in the soil, on the ground or in the air.
     Funded by a $1.3 million Pentagon grant, Goldeneye uses black lights, super glue and customized traps to collect more than 17 species of bugs.
     The bugs are "like little sponges or dust mops," Goldeneye explains.
     If security officials suspect that a toxic agent has been released into, say, a shopping mall or a theme park, they "deploy the bugs to crawl and fly around the suspected area, picking up samples, then collect the bugs for testing."
     For routine monitoring, the bugs could serve as a crucial part of a "24/7 sampling scheme."
     In Davenport, Iowa, a high-tech company called Full Court Press, with liberal funding from the illiberal Pentagon, is attempting to invent an inexpensive device that would isolate DNA from any infectious disease and instantly diagnose it.
     If it functions as drawn up, emergency workers, medical technicians and hospitals could figure out fast whether a human, food or soft drink has been infected and identify the infectious toxin.
     Today, in terms of bio-detection, "we're in the stone age," asserts Full Court Press founder L. Casey Longspur.
     "You go to a doctor's office, they take a sample of urine or blood, and you hang in there for a week biting your knuckles, waiting for the results.
     "That's not the way it should be."
     Longspur's eyes gloss over when he relates his dream: "to see my Full Court Press bio-detector in post offices, water treatment plants, ball parks, shopping malls, fitness centers and places of worship . . . anywhere a biohazard could be released."
     Many of these efforts sound like they belong in a science-fiction movie.
     But they are all real-time, cutting-edge projects lavishly funded by government $$$.
     Security officials acknowledge that probably most of the projects won't pan out, but they maintain that it is a risk worth taking even if only a single project turns into a useful addition to the ongoing war on terror.
     To date, the vast majority of these projects have been funded by the Defense Department.
     But after having tightened security at the nation's borders and airports and established a system of non-stop surveillance of American citizens, both the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security are now funding projects deemed worthy and have set aside $3 billion dollars for that purpose.
     Why not? It's the same money they've stripped from social services to the aged and indigent, from the schools and inner cities, from the docile, eroded middle class.
     "We aim to attract the very best minds from the private sectors and the academic community and get them working on high-stakes, high-security projects," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge declared in a recent speech marking the department's 200-day anniversary.

Yesterday, in Jerusalem, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl, wired with explosives, exchanged a lingering look with a 17-year-old Israeli girl as she was boarding a bus to go to school. Then the Palestinian girl boarded the same bus and detonated, killing both herself, the Israel girl, nineteen passengers and the bus driver.

     Many of the projects the department has funded are classified so that terrorists can't penetrate our technologies and subvert them.
     But other projects are part of the public record.
     What follows is the Department of Homeland Security's current (non-classified) wish list, which you can also find on their official web site: WWW.HomeSec.gov.
     An electronic device that could help border and airport-security workers profile folks who are up to no good.
     When security agents in any department are asked why they search certain cars or question certain passengers, they usually can't pinpoint what made them wary, beyond the fact that the individual was black and wore a do-rag.
     So Homeland Security is appealing to universities and corporate think-tanks to devise technology that will mark suspects by their physiological responses to interrogation.
     Scientists know, for example, that blood rushes to the eye muscles of someone who is lying, the suspect tends to stammer, his ears redden (if he is Caucasian), his nose gets longer by degree, and he displays other "thermal signatures" that signify evil doing or at least complicity in a terrorist activity.
     But, under law, security agents need definitive proof to jail and torture a suspect, otherwise the evidence they present in court, often at considerable cost to the taxpayer, will likely be inadmissible
     Self-decontamination kits that could be given to victims of a chemical attack.
     The kits must be easy to open without tools and include a decontaminant that is safe to use on skin, wounds and mucus membranes.
     The instruction manual should not exceed 150 pages, should be accessible to the sight-impaired, and the kit, including DVD, should cost no more than $39.95, plus postage.
     Technology to protect commercial and corporate aircraft from shoulder-fired missiles during takeoffs and landings. These primitive but occasionally deadly weapons are favored by technology-challenged, non-Caucasian terrorists.
     The anti-terrorist technology should be practical in terms of the cost of retrofitting aircraft and must contain a warning system for both ground operators and pilots.
     The system must also consider the impact of missile-related collateral damage to areas surrounding commercial airports.
     A sonar-based sea mine detection system that can search harbors, channels and rivers for anti-personnel mines or other "threat-objects" that have been secreted in the water.
     A computer program that would distinguish between African-American suspects who are patriotic Americans, as they claim, and pseudo-patriots who secretly sympathize with Islamic terrorists for reasons of race, religion or generalized bitterness.

     Hundreds of unsolicited proposals already have made their way to homeland security officials in recent months from corporations, think-tanks, reformed hackers, and universities eager to win grants and contracts.
     The department's grants administrator Phoebe S. Groundchat was at an event with Homeland Security head Tom Ridge recently when "this nerdy guy with thick glasses, smelling real strong of perspiration, walked up to me with a manila envelope and said: 'I'm a post-9/11 technologist looking for a fat pay-day.
     "'Can you make sure this gets into the right hands?'"
     Groundchat assures concerned Americans that the Department of Homeland Security already employs state-of-the-art technology for bomb detection, disease tracking and cybersecurity.
     But, as Groundchat puts it, "With vermin-terrorists becoming more and more cunning, heck, we can always build a better mousetrap."

It was 9/11 and all over the Third World the children woke up crying. In Ponta Grossa and Pemba, in Pangani and Mubende, in Purworedjo and Jessore, in the Darfur region of the Sudan, in Detroit City . . .


Counterterrorism experts estimate that there are 60 to 70 fanatical terrorist factions worldwide affiliated with Al Qaeda. Here is a sampling:

Based originally in northern Iraq, it has established footholds in Germany, Italy, France, Austria, and Argentina. Intelligence experts say the organization has regrouped and has strengthened its ties to Al Qaeda, helping with recruitment and logistical support.

Based in Nigeria. Some experts worry that this resurgent Islamic fundamentalist organization known for its reckless, wanton violence is in the process of planning terrorist attacks around the globe.

Based in Indonesia, it has cells in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Australia. Insurgent members have been apprehended in each of those countries. The group claimed responsibility for the attack in Bali (October 2002) and the attack on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta (August 2003), as well as the planned attack on the American, Australian and Israeli Embassies in Singapore, which was thwarted with the arrests there in December 2001.

Based in Indonesia's province of Sulawesi, this new and revised Islamic militia was formed by hard-liners who split from Jemaah Islamiyah. Reportedly, they are pledged to suicide bomb globally, the sooner the better.

Based in Pakistan, this fanatical militia was originally formed to fight to the death against India in the disputed province of Kashmir. Experts claim that it has now widened its ambitions and is currently training men, boys and even girls to be sent to Indonesia, from where it will be dispatched around the world for suicide combat.

Based in Algeria, the GSPC last year kidnapped a group of European tourists, including nine Germans. The hostages, a number of whom had been tortured and mutilated, were released in August after the German government paid 20 million euros (more than twenty-five million dollars) in ransom. GSPC has increased its activities in Mali, Niger, and Colombia, South America, where it is ruthlessly exploiting Colombia's vast cocaine resources.


     You say there are eighty to ninety factions of these fanatically ruthless terrorists?

     I don't say. The experts say. Sixty to seventy factions are the estimate they have provided.

     How does one qualify as a terrorist or counterterrorist expert?

     Think-tank is one way. Working in an official capacity in an official think-tank.

     Aren't think-tanks an American phenomenon?

     Not exclusively. The Germans have it. The Austrians have it. The Israelis have it. The Singapore Chinese have it. The South Africans had it--before Nelson Mandela gummed up the works.

     What about law enforcement? Would working in law enforcement qualify you as a counterterrorism expert?

     Depends. Working in law enforcement in, say, the Ivory Coast or Bangladesh or Jordan or Colombia would not necessarily qualify you. No.

     Something else I've noticed is that all these terrorist groups--whether from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America or even Europe--are Islamic.

     Your point?

     Are there no right-wing Christian terrorists? No Orthodox Jewish terrorists in Israel? No Hindu terrorists in India or Sri Lanka? No governments whose official policy--however papered over--is in effect terrorist?

     Sorry. I don't know that much about Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers are there of course. Hindus from the Madras area in Southern India waging war against the Buddhist majority.

     Filthy, bloody war. Longstanding.

     Wars are unpleasant. What are you driving at?

     Muslims worldwide. Why would they be suddenly consumed with a murderous hate for the US? For Western Europe?

     You want a rational answer to that?

     Rational. Anti-rational. I'll take what you have.

     "Suddenly consumed with murderous hate" is inaccurate. The murderous hate has been festering.

     And only now has come to a head?

     Something like that.

     For what reason?

     We talk about determinants not reasons as such. One determinant is the economic well-being of the US and Western and Central Europe. Compare living in, say, Dallas, Texas or London, with living in Damascus or Kuala Lumpur.

     For the poor black or African in Dallas and London there wouldn't be much to compare. For the human on death row in a prison in Dallas there wouldn't be much to compare.

     Another determinant, related to the first, is the discontent of the Islamic people themselves. Take the women.


     They--or a majority of them--don't want to be veiled. They don't want to be genitally mutilated. They want to be like western Christian or Jewish women, go to a shopping mall, have an iced latte, gossip and maybe even giggle, buy a pair of designer jeans or a dress that displays their legs below the knees.

     Not above the knees?

     Progress moves by degree, my friend.

     Not revolutionary progress.


     You said progress moves by degree; I said: not revolutionary progress.

     There has been, I suppose, legitimate revolution. If so, it's rare. More commonly there is revolution that--whatever its initial intentions--inevitably turns into a violent and bloody devolution. The latter is what we are infected with worldwide. The question is how do we address it?

     How do we?

     Dialogue. Coaxing, wheedling, bribing, blackmailing, if need be. Displaying the merits of our Christian-Judaic democracy. If that doesn't play we ratchet it up a notch.

     Military force?

     Not as a first or even second option. But if it comes to it, we are not going to tuck our tails and scatter, no.

     You say that Muslim women want to be like Christian and Jewish women, shop, get stoked on latte, gossip, giggle, then shop some more. Why then are Muslim girls and young women taking part in those fanatical suicide bombing missions you cite?

     Why? Coercion obviously. Why else would they choose to murder themselves and countless others?

     Murdering or murdering back?

     I don't know what that means.

     Murdering in small, illicit ways in response to the large-scale, so-called licit, murderous terrorism that's been imposed on them by those capitalist democracies you favor.

     Repeated suicide bombings amount to large, not small, murders. And most of the participants, especially the children and the females, are coerced. Those are facts not suppositions.

     And shopping all day in your capitalist democracies--that is not coerced?

     Shopping is not murdering.

     You're certain about that?


     Where are you heading now?



     I'm going to the firing range. Want to try out a new semiautomatic. Sig Sauer nine. One of the more recent models. I got it for a very good price.

     Have time for a coffee?

     Maybe. With one condition.

     Name it.

     That we suspend talking about geopolitics for the twenty minutes we're in Starbucks.

     And if I don't accept that condition?

     Then you won't be playing piggy with me.

It was 9/11 and the days before and after and throughout the Third World the children woke up crying. In Kuala Lumpur and Kandahar, in Phnom Penh and El Karak and Mogadishu and Gaza. And in the Third World that exists in the First World--the margins and inner cities, the invisible ghettoes and reservations stretching from New York to the Golden State, up and down the coasts--the unheard children woke up crying.

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