EPISODE ONE – Prologue
Scene 1: On That Day, Where Were They?
Setting: September 11, 2001, New York, Chicago, Jalalabad
Booker Langston, defense attorney
He was angry with her. Not really. His Tuesday schedule went into flux with his fiancée’s casual request (non-negotiable demand) for a mutual shopping appointment before his afternoon court session, where he was set to deliver his closing argument, defending the accused.
Judy said it would be a quick decision on her final choice of the wedding gown design. But he knew women. Maybe he didn’t. He did know that he was in love with investment banker/trader Judith Yu, her brilliance of mind, her beauty, the warmth of her smile, and her malleable body. The perfect cultural match: 3rd generation Chinese, she a math whiz, to merge by wedding vows to a 2nd generation African, his family political refugees, the elite of the previous regime, from a civil war in Liberia. Now, totally Americanized, successful though not yet rich, ‘Bookie’ was gaining a rep as a savvy defender of the legally entangled downtrodden of New York City. Complacent in his happiness within this work day, he had agreed to meet her in the lobby of the World Trade Center, North Tower. She would ride the elevator down from her currency exchange executive position in the financial trading office of Cantleigh & Fitzpatrick on the 103rd Floor. He checked his watch. 8:40 am. He picked up his pace, grinning. This time he would be early. Surprise her. He had flowers in his hand, a small bouquet.
The shadow of an aircraft momentarily darkened his steps. A grumbling scream filled the skies above his head, and then….
Barack Obama, Illinois State Senator
For his part, he remembered it beginning as probably an ‘unremarkable day.’ He was driving on Lake Shore Drive on his way to a required yet probably tedious Illinois Legislative Committee Meeting on Administrative Policy. The radio’s music channel switched to ‘Breaking News,’ and he first learned of a plane crash into one of the World Trade Center buildings in New York. By the time he arrived at his meeting, it had been canceled, and people were milling outside, many of them staring at Chicago’s Sears Tower, wondering, as he put it later, ‘Would this building go from workplace to target’? He drove to his law firm, where he worked at his holding place day job, and found everyone huddled in the basement conference room. The second plane had hit, and he joined his partners with exchanged stares, now saying aloud to no one but for a posterity of sorts, “All the misery and evil in the world has brought a black cloud blocking the sun.”
After a while of repetitive commentators, with the same horrific visuals but little information on the how and why, Barack left for home. He had night duty. Sasha had just been born, and to give Michele a needed respite, he was on feeding and burping patrol, multi-tasking, and at the same time, watching the television. Television that went beyond its rightful purpose as news delivery. Like the rest of the American population that September day, now late at night, Barack’s screen staring quickly zombied him into another internally wounded citizen.
Barack, the politician, had to consider the ramifications. Accepting that the national grief would be pervasive, the calls for immediate revenge. But, beyond the gut calls for firing squad justice, perhaps the following days and months might hold unsought latent opportunities. Barack, after all, was an elected politician; his credentials as a community activist saw him elected in 1996 for the 13th District, Chicago’s South Side. Honing his skills, using his associate professor voice, that of deep timbre to educate, loud enunciation to reach the farthest corners of a lecture hall, he thought he was ready. Not yet, but as part of the learning process of living within machine politics in the trenches, in 2000, he lost a political race for the U.S. Congress. A year later, learning from his failed battle to reach Washington, he had to weigh his public political response carefully to what his constituent base expected of him to what they now called 9/11. His response, crafted and loftier: “I have no empathy for terrorists.” A short pause as if something profound was forthcoming. “We must realize the pain they created was from poverty and ignorance. It is up to us to lift the despair from these regions.”
Several months later, State Senator Obama was having lunch with his go-to media consultant. The purpose—discussing where to, what next—all clichés appropriate: a finger to the wind or testing the [lake] waters. The question asked, cautiously, ‘What was the climate like for a run at the U.S. Senate?’
“Not good,” replied the consultant. “You have a major hurdle to overcome.” His advisor tapped the morning newspaper on the luncheon table. A grainy black-and-white Associated Press photograph of an angry turbaned and bearded man stared back at them, the man now identified as the ‘alleged’ leader of the terrorist attack: Sheik Osama bin Laden of the radical revolutionary al Qaeda, referred to in the same sentence as Islamic Jihadists. One and the same.
They both nodded to what that meant. His strange name of Barack, his African lineage of ‘Obama’ that easily rhymes with ‘Osama’ and a middle name with Mid East connotations, ‘Hussein.’ The whispering, the wink-wink suggestion of a tie to ‘Mohammed,’ his name would be disastrous in the current climate where ‘Remember the Alamo,’ ‘Remember the Maine,’ and ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ seemed all rolled into one shouted cry, ‘Avenge 9/11!’ With all political parties speaking with tenuous unity.
The consultant opined. “The time’s not right. They either get this guy or new events move him off the front page. Barack, you must be patient. Give it time.”
Barack did not like ‘hurdles’ or bumps in the road to deflect his goals. He passed the luncheon check over to the consultant, smiled, and thanked him for his advice. He would wait, but not for long.
Three years later, in 2004, he made his move and was elected to the U.S. Senate. He followed the John F. Kenney model: ‘Don’t make controversial waves, low profile, and get the hell out of the Senate.’ He knew where he was going, and it was not to be a long-serving U.S. Senator like the black Republican Edward Burke. Even if a member of that august chamber, he would not long be one of fifty.
Still, it leads one to wonder, that day with his media advisor, both discussing strategic moves to consider, at the luncheon’s end, did State Senator Obama himself tap that face on the newspaper’s front page, thumping hard with a stabbing finger, forming a resolution known only to him?
There were one too many Osama-Obama and Hussein-Mohammed connections on the world stage. And did he pledge to himself: ‘I will be the last man standing?’
Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, Pan-Islamic al-Qaeda leader
He had called his mother the night before. “You might not be able to reach me for some time.” She asked no questions. They had a pleasant visit about her life, his wives, and children. “No, they will not be coming with me for a month or so.” His mother did not ask why. He ended the call, both of them exchanging endearing goodbyes. Neither said they loved the other. That was not a ritual done in the bin Laden tribal clan. Yet, the call placed him in a good mood, as did other events yet to be.
Wearing no watch, he asked his bodyguard what time it was. Where they were, it was Tuesday evening, 6 pm in Jalalabad, Pakistan. He calculated that it was around 8 am in New York City. Osama bin Laden, also known as Usama bin Laden, an unknown to most of the Western world, had few concerns, and the news at this moment was more good than bad. The good news was, he had heard nothing of the attack being aborted. So, his fellow tactician, Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s first concept outline, had become the blueprint for this multi-faceted launch. A bold move and all Khalid’s idea. Bin Laden could accept letting someone else take the credit. But you could not rest on your laurels when fighting the Great Satan. A battle well done can be called a small victory; only many battles fought lead to a great victory. New planning would be required for the next attack, and Osama bin Laden had his own idea of what might come next, and he had brought with him plenty of writing materials to sketch his thoughts.
“It is time to go,” he touched his driver’s shoulder. They always traveled at night in two SUVs, and this trip with a truck laden with weapons and ammunition. Ironically, in other events happening a world away, his armed followers, his ‘revolutionary army’ always had to worry about the ‘death-from-the-skies,’ ship-to-land missile attacks or U.S. aircraft laser bombs [Military Predator drones were first used in October 2001 (see below), and CIA targeted drones were not used until February 2002].
He knew success would bring a response. It was time to go out and find a safe house with his most loyal supporters. The small convoy was leaving Jalalabad on the way to Spin Ghar Range (Pashto: ‘White Mountains’), a natural mountain frontier border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. His later plans, not yet set, might, if circumstances dictated, require a move to the more secluded and remote hide-outs in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Let his Taliban brothers form a shield of armed protection. Soon enough, they would know why he had sought them out, to be hidden among the various tribes.
Everything that would be said about him, he would shrug off. All of the accusations and shouting were mere propaganda noise to him. He had done nothing except to right perceived wrongs. If he were to admit to any of their accusations, he would deny all or only speak out to foment new soldiers to his banners, to the caliphate he would create, lead, and rule with a sharp-honed sword.
A bloody scimitar.
He leaned back in the bumping vehicle, his head resting, and was soon asleep. All was well with his world.
[The American government, with the almost unanimous approval of their citizens, would indeed respond less than a month later, on October 7th 2001(‘Operation Enduring Freedom’) with CIA agents and Special Forces, dependent on anti-Taliban allies and the accuracy of U.S. Air Force’s laser-dropped munitions and the Navy’s Tomahawk sea-based cruise missiles. Not an invasion at that time but a surgical strike. One of their strategic targets to be removed was head Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Tracked and located, military high command infighting bungled a Predator drone strike. It failed; an empty truck destroyed, and Mullah Omar and the senior Taliban leadership fled, some even jumping out of windows, all escaping. The irony was that the Taliban knew nothing of what would happen in New York City and elsewhere on September 11th. They were bad people, certainly, but not the ones who unleashed the whirlwind of avenging might. Source: ‘The Story of America’s First Drone Strike,’ by Chris Woods, Atlantic Magazine, May 30, 2015]
Ten Years Later
EPISODE TWO – Two Versions of December 2010
Scene 1: Lost Goal.
Setting: December 2010, Afghanistan
There is the old war movie cliché that if your buddy sharing the foxhole with you shows you his worn photo of his wife and baby from back home, then he or both of you are doomed to the sniper’s bullet or the falling mortar round.
E-4 rated Shawn Pacheco of Navy SEAL Team Four hadn’t gone that far in believing he had jinxed his buddies, but in his platoon, the night before the mission, he felt the odd man out, uncomfortable, sensing they looked at him with unspoken expressions of disdain.
Everyone knew of his earlier Skype telephone call with Janet, his fiancée, making wedding plans; she waiting for him in Cleveland, Ohio. In the mess tent, he had boasted of his optimism about love and honeymooning, of going home soon, just like in a war movie. Fated. You just don’t talk that shit before a mission. And now….
There were feather-stepped shuffles across the light snow. They were stalking their quarry, or so they thought. No words were exchanged; it was all hand signals as they approached the cave, its gray-etched outline over the eastern mountains in the Pachir Wa Agam District of Nangarhar Province. In another half hour, they would not need their night vision goggles, so the push was on to move quickly, silently, and with stealth. Pacheco, a member of the elite SEAL Team Four, was proud to be part of the unit, expecting greater recognition when his paperwork was approved for a new status as an expert in explosives. He assumed this was why they put him on point, further fieldwork, that from his knowledge, they expected him to spot nuances in the landscape – disturbances that might be telltale signs of planted IEDs.
This mission was to engage Taliban or al-Qaeda combatants thought to be situated in or near this cave location in hopes that a high-valued target might be present.
Though his squad said little while prepping, their hopes buoyed, and there were little exchanges of ribbing and joking. They wished that any target might be the Big Guy himself, Osama bin Laden, or even his second-in-command, the Doctor, al-Zawahiri, so they could go home, away from this damn cold country. And Shawn, back to Ohio and to Janet, his promised bride.
The cave, with its small squat entrance, was shallow, with little depth—and empty. Its litter showed habitation from at least two months ago. It was bad intel, more usual than not these days if you got your information, pried the scuttlebutt from hesitant local villagers. Anxiety waned, and fingers on triggers relaxed, but only slightly. Several team members were pissed and cursed at limestone walls, one SEAL even shouting, looking for an echo response: “Where the fuck are you, Osama?” It was less about the mission’s failure than about a lack of action, which cemented a SEAL Team’s honed training into the élan expected of them.
In single file, they backtracked down the narrow trail, hearing distant choppers returning to the LZ for embarkation. Tensions eased more. The first arc of sunlight hit distant mountaintops, and daylight, like melting butter, moved down toward the valley below. When the trail opened up, Pacheco’s best friend, Reyes Montoya, gave him a friendly nudge to the side and moved to the front of the small column. ‘Let’s pick up the pace,’ he said with a kidding laugh.
On a switchback turn, Montoya spotted an old juice can sticking out of the snow.
Probably recalling his high school soccer days, he made a move at playing, rushing the net with the winning kick. It was a mental mistake and a fatal one because what looked benign in this godforsaken land never was.
A thin wire attached to the juice can tripped the detonator on the PMA-2 mine. ‘Goal, he scores,’ whispered Montoya. It was loud enough that Pacheco knew in that second what was about to occur. He could do nothing but turn his head and accept the blast.
When he awoke in the base hospital, he discovered he had been concussed, bruised, and had scattered wounds stitched up. Fit for duty in a week, they told him. He still had all his limbs, though, and he felt himself damn lucky. The doctors later told him that the flecks of bone and gristle removed from his neck and hands had been Montoya’s.
To SEAL Team Four, blame could not be affixed without collective guilt about a stupid mistake by a dead friend, and it wasn’t a mistake since SEAL members did not make such errors in judgment. Except maybe guilt on Pacheco, who should have maintained point position instead of Montoya. Would he have done the same, would he have kicked the juice can, or would he have been more cautious, he wondered? The latter, he knew, but it mattered little.
To his comrades, Shawn, they groused, had failed in his assignment to watch out for all of them, steer them away from booby traps, and take the explosion himself if it had come to that. He came out of the hospital to find himself a Jonah and a pariah, shunned. Personal grief made him accept his fellow SEAL members’ silent accusations, and he began to believe he had killed Montoya himself.
And perhaps it was he who should have died instead of his friend? Physically he recovered quickly, but the mental damage ate at his conscience like a cancer. He did not talk to Janet for a week, and when he did, the conversation seemed one-sided, stilted. Talk of pre-wedding parties had lost its allure.
Scene 2: Putting on the Ritz.
Setting: New York City, December 2010
“Should not creativity be used for a higher moral purpose?”
She zapped him, tore into his mindset, just at the climax where Starfighter Hugh Fox began, at the 20th Level, destroying the headquarters of MegaToth Command and Control. The woman’s voice had brought him from the galactic unworldly back to the familiar reality of a chattering cocktail crowd.
He dropped his cosmic beam weapon away from the movie theater-sized flat screen and turned to the crowd of the imbibing inquisitive, all well-heeled and attired formally for the charity event evening. His avatar, looking like Hugh Fox himself and programmed by his company, Skilleo Games Technology, to offer human-styled expressive emotions, turned to say ‘What the –?’ but not finishing the surprise of abandonment, it was blasted instead into jellied gore by one of the thousand MegaToth NucleoDisseminators the game master had thus far defeated. “You are history,” came the programmed voice as gameplay went into stasis, waiting for the Starfighter game player to reboot.
Hugh’s eyes turned to his audience, seeking out his presumed critic. Those in the small group surrounding him were not fans but consumers, the parents of fans who had so far made “MegaToth Doomslayer V” the top-selling electronic game of the last holiday season and winner of this year’s Achievement Interactive Awards. He was here tonight, at an uppity charity event, where he would offer a lucky bidder, at the celebrity auction following dinner, the right to put their name, character, and personality into his next Skilleo game as the evil OverLord. Among gamesters, this would be on par with Marvel Comics creating an action hero based on one’s own image. He expected frenzied bidding that night by indulgent parents who were pressured by their precocious children to purchase a rare and personalized piece of the Hugh Fox Skilleo Empire.
Hugh spotted her in the crowd. She dressed stylishly in expensive and tasteful clothes, and she was quite attractive—for an older woman, maybe near thirty-plus years old, he guessed. 34-36 range. He found most of the society crowd much older than his twenty-nine and still growing age.
She seemed alone…