Just the word "Blackwater" makes me feel slightly queasy.
The scariest people I've ever met were the Blackwater guys I found clustered around a van behind a New Orleans hotel shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
I saw a lot of disconcerting things during those two weeks, but the one experience that haunts me two years later was a five-minute conversation that crew.
We'd already encountered a few other Blackwater guys during our trip. One juiced up freak in mirrored sunglasses and a Blackwater bearclaw t-shirt actually lunged at our car when my colleague tried to take a picture of the hotel he was guarding. He didn't point his weapon or yell, or do anything a rational person in a defensive posture might have done. He just grunted really loudly and tried to stick his head in our window.
Mind you, he wasn't holding a position in an emergency. We were driving in broad daylight through downtown New Orleans with a bunch of other traffic (military and civilian).
The Blackwater dude was acting as a glorified rent-a-cop on the sidewalk, about two blocks from the main media staging area for New Orleans, which was already amply secured by US military and law enforcement.
What I didn't realize at the time was that these Blackwater guys thought of themselves as frontline soldiers in a literal war zone, ready to use deadly force at the slightest provocation. That was an unfounded estimate, in the middle of the day in downtown New Orleans several days after the city had been secured by the legitimate authorities.
We certainly weren't seeing that level of aggression or anxiety from the 82nd Airborne or the NOLA police, or the National Guard, or anyone else in the vicinity.
The real public servants greeted journalists warmly and told us proudly about all the things they were doing to help.
Some bored guys from the 82nd Airborne even agreed to watch our car for us for a few minutes when we got out to photograph the abandoned convention center. A Louisiana sheriff offered us a ride when we really needed one. A California fire chief approached us on the Interstate and proudly gave us a grand tour of his department's joint recovery operations with US soldiers.
In retrospect, it seems like the Blackwater guys were inhabiting their own violent fantasy world. A more cynical person would say they were looking for an excuse to hurt someone.
A couple days after our initial encounter with the lunger, I set out to talk to some Blackwater guys in person. This was the last picture I snapped before I found them.
When I looked in their eyes, I felt something entirely new to me--a basic mammalian sense of dread. It was as if some part of my brainstem came alive and said: "These people are predators. They would kill you."
These mercenaries were nothing like the lunger. In fact, they weren't overtly threatening, or outwardly aggressive. Actually, some of them were friendly in their own twitchy dead-eyed way.
One guy lit up when I mentioned I was from Brooklyn.
His buddies wanted to know what kind of weapon I was carrying, as if this were standard bar chitchat.
I tried to interview them, but I couldn't get anything more than vague allusions to Iraq. One silent guy seemed to be getting more and more agitated as I asked questions of his friends. I figured it was a good time to go.
As soon as I got out of sight and back to the rental car, I started shivering and didn't stop for almost an hour.
In retrospect, I realize that I only dared to approach these guys because of a naive faith that I was an unarmed US journalist in the USA.
I can't imagine what it would be like to live in a society where these guys were around every corner, unbound by the rule of law.