The Laboratorium
February 2002

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I'm saddened by the story of Danny Pearl, and I'm angered. I want to find the villains who did this and throw them in the clink until they rot. And let's make sure their cells all have pictures of his smile, so that every day for the rest of their long and penitential lives they'll be reminded what their monstrous crime took from the world.

I have no sympathy for these murderers, none. I want to say that I can't understand why they did it, but that's not true. I mean, I know what they wanted, what their demands were and what they said about him, but I just don't care. Whatever willingness I may have formerly had to listen to them disappeared when they slit Danny Pearl's throat.

What were they thinking? What else did they expect? That I was going to be more sympathetic because they brutally murdered a kind and gentle man who was just trying to listen? No, no, no! It doesn't work like that.

And I can't understand how they could possibly have thought that it would. That's insanity, that's the definition of arrogance, that's utterly failing to recognize that other people are, well, people. And of course people are going to be outraged at such misdirected and gratuitous violence.

I just wish that people in the U.S. who talk about "getting tough on terrorism" could appreciate this fact, too.


A couple of months into my first real job, they held something called Mind-Swap. Everyone near us in the org chart went out to a resort in the San Juan Islands to talk about programmer productivity tools. They had Power-Point about instrumenting binaries, they had team-building games, they had kayaking, and gosh golly gee it was all fun, but it was also total bullshit.

MindSwap was what we call an "offsite." Offsites are supposedly about breaking free of the office environment. In reality, they're about feeling important enough to have to break free of the office environment. Mind-Swap was a chance for us to convince each other that automated test-case generation tools were so important, so creative, that we needed to get out of our spacious offices in order to brainstorm about them.

The World Economic Forum is an offsite. Sure, it issues pretentious statements about "Re-evaluating Leadership and Governance," but so far as it's about anything, it's about tossing back drinks with the guys in the hotel bar and trying not to get stuck with the tab. The only thing that keeps the WEF from being just another self-indulgent offsite is that the guys in the Waldorf-Astoria bar this past weekend were a representative sample of the world's richest, most powerful, and most amoral individuals. They may not work all that much evil at the WEF itself, but when they go back to their spacious offices, they work an awful lot of it.

That's why I was out in the streets Saturday and Sunday. I was an independent observer, gathering evidence for potential legal cases against the police. More precisely, Gus had a video camera and was filming arrests and scuffles and I was there to watch her back and alert her to anything dramatic happening outside her viewfinder. It was my first major protest, and it's going to be with me for a long time.

What you never realize without being there is where the bad vibes come from. On Saturday, they came from the cops. The marchers had puppets and a samba band; they ranged from goofy to cynical, but their mood was upbeat. The police -- well, it may have been exhaustion and it may have been fear or it may just have been been the contemptuous loathing it felt like, but every time tempers flared, every time things got grimmer, it started with someone in blue scowling or puffing up, provoking a confrontation.

There's something they do that's disturbing in its effectiveness and also in its callousness. A couple of detachments will surround a group of protesters, giving contradictory orders. Disperse or you will be arrested. Don't go this way, don't go that way. They close in a little, tighten the catch-22, act deaf to the questions being asked of them. And then they "relent," a passage opens up, and the demonstrators flow through it. "Relent," that is, because, when you think about it, whose idea was it, really, to go that way single-file?

Sunday, we were tailing the (Animal/Earth) Liberation Front, and at one point the demonstration passed a Starbucks. An officer at the front called out to his fellows to form a line between it and the marchers. He laughed, a little, and so did the crowd: it was a joke and also not a joke. There's a secret cat-and-mouse complicity between adversaries at moments like that: they inhabit a cartoon world of outsize drama and incongruous violence incomprensible to the well-dressed woman with a dog on a leash who demands to know why they won't let her walk down this block and would they please let someone know that this sort of nonsense has to stop.

But such moments pass, and that was about as light-hearted as the day got: there were martial drums and a bullhorn and a smashed window, and then a mass tackle of an alleged window-breaker and a double-time push out onto Third Avenue away fromtm the scene, and then it was back to the scowls and the drumming and the chopper overhead and the half-dozen large vans moving slowly alongside the the teams of police and the gathering dusk and gathering ranks of blue and the fear and the increasingly frequent stops and the growing realization that the police were going to shut the march down completely somewhere around the Queensboro Bridge.

Sunday was when I learned my limits. My soul wasn't prepared, my earthly affairs weren't in order. I was afraid to risk arrest, and at a key moment, I took the proffered corridor out. I was running through reasons in my head: I need to drive Sammy back to Boston tomorrow, I don't have a pen hidden on me, I don't know the number for the legal pool. But I knew they were bullshit excuses, like taking a National Guard draft deferment.

The Man's gaze is like the Eye of Sauron: the immensity of being noticed, even sidelong, hits you deep down with the terror of your utter powerlessness before it. Since Sunday, I've been watching my parking meters. There's nothing like being threatened with arrest for stepping off the sidewalk to make you prim and proper about all the silly little laws.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, Super Bowl celebrants were rioting.