When The Tigers Broke Free

I had a much different piece organized in my head that I was going to write for today. But then something happened last night and I realized it’s time for me to make a confession and tell all of you one of my secrets.

I’ve written hundreds of posts here on the blog and given many interviews in both English and Romanian to the media about why I live in Romania, why I like it so much, why I recommend people should visit and all of those kinds of things. But I haven’t been completely honest. There is one additional reason I live in Romania.

September 11, 2001

It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years. But it has, and my life is completely different today than it was that miserable morning a decade ago. Although I had already visited Romania twice, I was still living in the United States at the time and had no plans to move to Romania or do all of the many things here which I’ve already written about.

And then came “nine eleven”. On that specific day, I was horrified and saddened. For the next week or month or perhaps even a few months I remained this way. It was an awful, terrible, evil thing.

But I moved to Romania in 2004 in part because, as far as I could see, “nine eleven” never ended. I still don’t consider it ended. On September 11, a lot of people died in a horrible way. But it was the fact that almost everything good about my country also died on that day which made me realize I needed to get out, to leave, to go somewhere and perhaps never come back.

Last night here in Romania I was out in a very nice club with a group of people I know, both Romanians and foreigners. We were there to dance, to drink, to talk, to laugh and to have a good time, just like everyone else in the club. We paid our fees to enter, we ordered our drinks and everything was going well until shortly after midnight.

Suddenly the music stopped midway through a song and the house lights came on. The club put a silent clip on the video monitors of an American flag and something (in English!) about 9-11-2001. At first, everyone thought it was one of those moment of silence things.

But craning our necks around, we saw that unfortunately it was something else. There were a half a dozen police officers standing around, armed to the teeth, dressed in black paramilitary gear from head to toe, all of them with balaclavas or “ski masks” covering their faces, looking like this. These are known in Romanian as mascatii or the “masked ones” due to the fact that they cover their faces, which is somehow legal and acceptable here.

Note: I’ve searched everywhere in the local Cluj media for a story about this and have yet to see one. If I do, I will post a link to it later.

Why these thugs from the government were in the club, no one was able to ever ascertain. We never saw them arrest anyone or even do anything except stand around and talk on their radios and to each other. We asked a couple of members of the club’s staff to explain and they didn’t know either, telling us only that neither the music nor new drink orders could continue.

So we left. And since they let us leave without even chatting with us or checking identification or anything else, I still have no idea what they were doing there. Outside were another half a dozen police vehicles and there were officers everywhere, swarming into other clubs that are on the same street as the one where we had been. Our group then got into a taxi and went somewhere else and had a good time.

But seeing those masked bandits armed to the teeth appear shortly after it became officially September 11 here in Romania made me realize I had to tell the story of why I knew I had to leave the United States all those years ago, and why I have no desire to return.

In all my years of traveling I have been to nations under the yoke of dictatorship. I have been to countries under Communist rule in the 1980’s. I’ve been to countries under martial law. I have been to countries where government troops fire bullets and tear gas at their own citizens. I know what a police state is.

After September 11, 2011, in my various trips between Romania and the United States, it was obvious one was becoming a police state ruled by fear and the other was not. Crossing the border into Romania, I’d share jokes and a bottle of tuica with officials. I saw no guns, no masks, no reign of terror and no citizens scurrying around in fear.

Coming back into America, despite the fact that my skin is white, my religion is not Islam, my English is that of a native, my passport is that of a citizen and despite never having done anything egregious against the state in my entire life (conversely, I had spent many years working for the government), I and everyone else was treated like a convicted felon.

There’s the scans and the X-rays and the other gadgetry and equipment to test and to probe and to peer into our bodies and belongings and luggage. There are the police dogs, leashed but menacing to attack anyone who gets out of line. There are the armed soldiers patrolling around with fully automatic M-16 rifles. And then there are the dozens and dozens of police, agents and officials, all of whom can have you arrested or detained or searched even more thoroughly if you step out of line, if you do the slightest thing wrong.

I remember once landing at the airport in America and opening my mobile phone so I could tell my friends I had arrived safely. And an FBI agent ran over to me screaming at the top of her lungs to stop using my phone or she would have me arrested. And when I complied, I asked her why such activity was banned and she said that theoretically I could “activate” a bomb with my phone. Why I would spend 12 hours on a plane, carrying a bomb in my luggage only to explode it on the ground after having arrived is beyond my ability to guess.

I remember frightened flight attendants in the back of the plane warning me not to “congregate” near the bathrooms with someone else or else we would be arrested. I remember other airline personnel telling me they had to confiscate ordinary cigarette lighters because there was a fear that a passenger could put one inside a microwave oven in the plane, thus causing an explosion. And of course we all know about the liquids rule, the removing of your laptop from its bag and the removal of your shoes as you shuffle through the wall of agents, cameras and scanning equipment.

Quite frankly, entering into the country of my birth was and remains an ordeal almost identical with that of entering a maximum security prison to visit someone.

And it’s not just in the airport. Even outside, in the every day world of every day Americans, the mentality of fear and militancy continues. Everyone is a potential terrorist or “evil doer”. Everyone must be spied on, intercepted, wire tapped, monitored and investigated. Everyone must have their background “checked”, their fingerprints on file, their urine or hair tested. No one is allowed to step out of line and the jails are filled to bursting.

And overseas? Well we all know that story, about the millions who have died, the millions who have been injured, the bombs that have been dropped, the villages and cities and entire countries which have been destroyed, the people who have been horrendously tortured (including in Romania), all in the name of “nine eleven”.

Yes, I live in Romania because of all of the reasons I have stated in the past. But a big part of why I left the United States was to get away from a police state, to get away from armed interventions by agents of the state, to get away from the surveillance and the erosion of privacy and liberty. I also left to get away from the fear, the constant anxiety of the ordinary person, frightened every day of breaking the rules or of being attacked by some unknown, amorphous bogeyman who could at any moment descend from the skies and reign down more death and terror.

I came to Romania because here children play on the streets, here old men take their daily constitutional, dressed elegantly in their formal clothes and tip their hats at you and pass a few words about the lovely weather we’re having. I came here because deals can still be done with a handshake, where things can be worked out sometimes without a mountain of paperwork and fingerprints and “checks”. I came to Romania because I can pay cash without it being odd or unusual. I came to Romania because I can go out on a Saturday night and enjoy a few alcoholic drinks and have fun without needing to worry about anything, including some artificial time limit on when the bar must shut down.

I don’t know why masked men with guns shut down the club last night. I suspect that I will find out one of these days. But what I do know is that Ben Franklin’s words still ring true to me today, that any nation which gives up its liberties in the name of security deserves neither (liberty or security).

I am sorry for those people who died 10 years ago on this date. I am sorry for all of the grieving families and friends who lost a dear loved one. But I am far sorrier that my country traded its confidence and independence and love of freedom for the illusion of security, and allowed their fear to permit policies of death, destruction, incarceration and torture for both its own citizens as well as for millions of people worldwide.

Sorry folks for the lugubrious post, but these are my thoughts on this day as I remember not only my neighbors who died but of all of the freedoms that died on this day as well.

I will leave you with the following video from Roger Waters, who is far more gifted with words than I.

The United States of America
“Land of the free, home of the brave”

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