Few Americans, including many members of Congress, are aware of the lives led by American diplomats and the many dangers we face. While terrorism can often dominate the media in the United States, many Americans do not link its ever-present danger with the daily lives of our country's diplomats.
Ironically, terrorism is only one of the many dangers that we face, and may not be the most threatening. In addition to terrorism, diplomats must face horrific crime rates, deadly disease, and perhaps the most dangerous activity of all, driving. Many Americans are also unaware that our families accompany us overseas and share our dangers with us.
A brief overview of my diplomatic career and the dangerous situations my family and I faced will provide some insight.
I started my career as a consular officer in Berlin, Germany. It was 1983, in the midst of the Cold War, and Berlin was a focal point of that conflict. In Berlin, we faced an ever-present danger from Islamic and leftist terrorists. In those pre-9/11 days, there was no security in the consular section. Anyone could walk into the consular building from off of the street carrying a weapon. There were no bulletproof barriers between the public and us. We conducted business over a counter and often interviewed applicants in our offices. Over the course of my 18-month assignment, I interviewed several terrorist suspects face to face. We did not have Marine Guards at the US Mission to Berlin because of its special status. A detachment of Army personnel resided in the consular building (the former headquarters of Hitler's Air Force during World War Two). Whenever I conducted an interview with a known terrorist suspect, an armed soldier would stand guard, prepared to intervene at a moment's notice.
During my assignment, Berlin was in a high state of terrorist alert. The alert was justified in 1986, when Libya-sponsored terrorists bombed the LaBelle Discotheque killing one serviceman and wounding 79 more. We were told never to start our car in the morning without first checking underneath for signs that a bomb had been planted. We changed our route from home to office and back every day and constantly checked whether we were under surveillance.
One day I looked out of my window and spotted a man with binoculars and a camera parked across the street. He was looking at my residence and taking pictures. I immediately called a special telephone number and reported the surveillance. Within minutes a truck arrived and American soldiers jumped out, surrounded the car and arrested the man inside. He was taken in for questioning and confessed that he was a journalist trying to get a story on one of my neighbors.
In 1985, I was transferred from Berlin to an economic position at the US Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. I served two tours in Pakistan, from 1985-1987 and from 1995-1997. During my first Pakistani assignment, the country was embroiled in the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan. Afghan insurgents were fighting the Russian and Afghan armies. The Russians used Pakistani and Afghan personnel to conduct daily terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. The Embassy had been stormed by demonstrators on November 22, 1979 and burned, with the loss of two Americans and two Pakistani Embassy employees. There was always the possibility that the attack would be repeated.
During both assignments, we were on high terrorist alert. This meant that I could never start my car without first checking for bombs. I could never park my car in an unsecured area unless someone was inside to make sure no one planted a bomb. This meant that when we went to the bazaar to do our marketing, our maid sat in the car. Watchmen (chowkidars) guarded our homes and made sure our perimeter gates were always locked.
The Embassy was a fortress. Surrounded by a moat and tank traps and rolls of concertina wire. No car could enter the compound without a complete check for bombs. Grills were mounted above our office windows to deflect mortar rounds or RPG's. The rear of the Embassy was surrounded by high ground. I would sit in my office and think how easy it would be to site a mortar there and bombard the Embassy. Men armed with AK47 automatic weapons were everywhere.
The capital was filled with armed paramilitary forces assigned to provide security. They routinely established roadblocks, which they used to shake down motorists and collect bribes. We were told that our diplomatic plated cars would not be stopped and that we were not to allow the police to stop our vehicles and harass us. On one occasion, we were driving late at night. The police at the roadblock insisted on stopping us and tried to wave us down. I kept on driving. At least one policeman raised his weapon and pointed it at us, but quickly caught himself and let us pass.
I attended the international Protestant Church located in a compound behind the Embassy. It was "guarded" by members of the Pakistani secret police. Their real mission, however, was to ensure that no Pakistani Muslims attended the service. We donated a carpet to the church. On March 17, 2002, the guards were mysteriously absent. Terrorists strolled into the church and threw grenades, killing a female American diplomat and her 17-year-old daughter and wounding 40 other persons, 10 of them Americans. A Pakistani parishioner who attended services every Sunday with us lost both of his legs in the attack. Our donated carpet was soaked with blood and had to be discarded.
Many of my contacts travelled with their own armed bodyguards. I remember sitting flanked by AK-47 carrying gunmen on either side. The floor of the vehicle was marked by bullet holes caused by accidental discharges. It was common in Pakistan for gunmen not to keep their gun on safety. On one occasion, my daughter and I were taking a walk along a mountain highway. We encountered the parked motorcade of an Afghan insurgent leader. The heavily armed gunmen asked us over so they could see my daughter (who was four years old), stroke her hair and admire her. A truckload of armed military personnel accompanied us when we travelled in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).
The universal presence of firearms presented its own unique dangers. During weddings in the NWFP, celebrants commonly fired their automatic weapons into the air, hitting aircraft flying overhead. Airplanes flying into and out of Peshawar Airport were marked with bullet holes. We were in the NWFP for the celebration of Eid. Every household in the city brought out its firearms to fire tracers into the air. Our Pakistani hosts invited us outside to witness the celebration. They offered to give my 10-year-old son his own pistol to fire. I quickly realized that all of the ammunition being fired skyward would make its way back to earth (the newspapers were filled with accounts of killed and wounded celebrants). After a decent interval, I got my family and myself under cover.
My neighbor was a "diplomat" from the Iraqi Embassy. He invited my family and me for tea. Iraq and Iran were at war. My neighbor said...