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September 22, 2007

Blackwater

Blackwater has been in the news again lately. Of course, they aren't getting kicked out of Iraq. Some Blackwater employees are being investigated for allegedly trafficking arms.  

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.

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Comments

Trust your gut... and remember "the shivers"... ^..^

Something you wrote:

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.

made me wonder how people would act if they really thought they were in a "shoot 'em up" video game (note: not blaming video games for anything here, just a comparison). You know the ones where bad guys jump out from everywhere and it is kill or be killed the whole time?
Maybe "Blackwater" shows the behavior associated with such a mindset? Mercenary work (ever seen an issue of "Soldier of Fortune"?) seems to glorify a kind of predator mentality anyway, so maybe it all hangs together. I never liked mercenaries.

If they weren't on our side they'd be "illegal combatants".

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that unlike in Iraq, Blackwater, when engaged over here on USA shores, they actually have to obey USA laws...?

I know if I come face to face with one of these men in the context of a political protest, labor strike or natural disaster, I won't assume I'm being granted any rights at all.

"Just the name 'Blackwater' makes me queasy."

Well, it is a term for partially-treated sewage. I would guess the founder wasn't aware of that.

Blackwater has bear claw totem. Powerful ju-ju.

I'll always love the Doobie Brothers tribute to the
Black Water organization.

I'll always love the Doobie Brothers tribute to the
Black Water organization.

lindsay,
great post, but i'm suprised you don't mention race. would a black man in his twenties, journalist or not, have been free to conduct such an interview? the "war" these goons see themselves as fighting was, as it is in iraq, a race war -- one where tough white guys save innocent civilians from some lawless, dark-skinned menace. i've never met one of these hired guns, but from my perspective this seems like an essential element to the "predator mentality" accurately described above by afterthought.
lindsay says, "I only dared to approach these guys because of a naive faith that I was an unarmed US journalist in the USA," but i think you owe more to your logical and astute faith that these guys weren't in new orleans to kill white women.

I was always struck by the last three comments for that post, one from a guy who claimed to have worked for Blackwater. Yeah, they seem pretty nuts; anyway, they can't tell the difference between a war zone and a city after a natural disaster.

Oh wow, I checked out the comments from your 2005 post and found a couple from self-proclaimed security guys. This one struck me funny:

“We have trained vigorously and put our lives in harms way to preserve the freedom that you and all American's enjoy daily. The men restoring order in New Orleans are working long hours in an environment of what we would call "defensive posturing". Being under the threat of small arms fire will certainly not put a "smile" on your face.”

The US army and the NOLA police were also there. Some of those guys were war veterans, too; but they didn’t go around tilting at windmills and growling at cameras. If this is a fair example of the Black Water mentality, that group might want to tighten its psychological fitness requirements for potential employees.

And then there was this comment, which simply served to piss me off:

“This is regarding CR's comment. In Iraq, i worked closely with private security contractors. they are professional. they dont slouch, they arent grumpy, and they DO dislike cameras, and other objects pointed at them. as he said, this isnt a game. it was very dangerous what you did. and reckless. not brave. Brave is doing the fighting in Iraq, not taking pictures of suffering people while you drive around in a rental car spreading the news that hurricanes suck. Grow up ma'am.”

This idiot seemed to be under the impression that journalists view risking their own lives as some kind of super-fun game to be played only until the burly ‘roid-enraged mercenaries show up to teach the silly fools some lessons on how to survive in an urban war zone.

I'm sure you'd hear the same mixture of posturing, self-importance and menace if you spoke to an SA member in Weimar Germany, or a paramilitary soldier in Columbia... not to mention of course the religious militiamen now running riot in Iraq. Emotionally disturbed men in private armies rarely seem to affect society for the better.

Utica, you're right. The gender and racial calculus was definitely part of my overall risk assessment. I did realize that they'd be much nicer to me as a white woman than they would have been to a black man in the same position.

It seems the leadership at Blackwater has a fundie infection. I wonder how much this effects the context in which the grunts operate. "Christian soldiers" indeed.

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.

We will.

Lindsay, you're a Canadian citizen. Get out while you still can.

We better start imagining it, otherwise we'll all just sit here enthralled by our computers while they are taking over.

LB said: "In retrospect, it seems like the Blackwater guys were inhabiting their own violent fantasy world."

Plato said:

SOCRATES: And may we not rightly call such [tyrannical] men treacherous?
ADEIMANTUS: No question.
S.: Also they are utterly unjust, if we were right in our notion of justice?
A.: Yes, he said, and we were perfectly right.
S.: Let us then sum up in a word, I said, the character of the worst man: he is the waking reality of what we dreamed.
(Republic IX, 576B, Jowett trans.)


Arms, organization, money and a mandate make his violent fantasy into our wretched reality.

I know I'm not shocking anybody when I say these guys are bad news. They are a combination of Special Forces veterans and in some cases even dropouts from similar services. These aren't the freethinking-Noam-Chomski-
reading-Pat-Tillman-style Special Ops soldiers either.

Mega-millionaire founder Erik Prince's family has long given substantial support to Republican and Fundamental Christian causes. Blackwater's recruiting reflects this. If enough suitable American aren't available they draw from Right Wing military pools globally. Blackwater Pres. Gary Jackson has freely admitted to hiring former Chilean commandos, "many of who had trained under the military government of Augusto Pinochet." Pinochet's military killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands.

Putting philosophy, politics, murder, human rights violations and money aside for a split second, I believe it takes a certain kind of asshole to seek this kind of work. I've heard rumors of steroid abuse among the ranks too. To recap: we have a private army built of Hard-core Christian Republicans and/or international Right-wing death squad types not beholden to any US law (both civilian and military) or Iraqi law.

My guess is we'll never hear the half of the horrible things in Iraq for which Blackwater is responsible.

AF

"It seems the leadership at Blackwater has a fundie infection. I wonder how much this effects the context in which the grunts operate. "Christian soldiers" indeed."

Somehow I don't think that they'd get with trouble with their higher-ups for having extramarital sex or using alcohol or swear words.

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."

THIS is exactly the feeling I get from the people I encounter in Tampa that do all the strange stuff. I blogged about the freak who kept calling the police on me and this was him. I have him on video A LOT. I believe if their skin somehow separated that lizards would emerge or something ...

They're so freaky from some other place that I couldn't really put fear on it either ... it was more like ... dread and pity and ... the same lack of humanity.

They do that with their eyes on purpose. There's something very wrong in the world and these freaks are playing a big part.

Thanks for this post. It feels better to not be alone in the noticing and the dread. I have no fear. I'm not saying that's a good thing. I just don't have any.

Oh yeah, they would drop you on the spot if they could get away with it. The thing is -- they're CLOSE to being able to get away with it.
Never stop fighting this.

Oh and I agree with Rabouf.

I'm close to agreeing with Rabouf, too. Even my brother, who used to fancy himself a conservative, has been talking a lot about Newfoundland lately.

And with the way climate change is accelerating, the weather may be even more agreeable in a short time than it is now.

I meant to say Nova Scotia. Newfoundland is probably still a little remote for him.

It's probably worse than Lindsay reports--she was doubtless given the "pretty girl discount" by the Blackwater thugs. The confrontations/interactions she describes would likely have been even more harrowing for those not qualified to receive same.

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