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Day 205: American Nightmare

I expected to be booked on the charges I faced. The Tombs connects to plenty of courtrooms via a cantilevered walkway called the “Bridge of Sighs.” Instead I was taken from my session with the NYPD to a patrol car. Were they driving me home? Had that whimsical beating been some weird Get Out of Jail interview?

My hopes were smothered when two uniformed cops put earmuffs on me and slipped a black hood over my head. I think they drove around in circles so I couldn’t tell where we were going. I could taste other peoples’ fear. Had that hood had ever been laundered?

THE EXIT NOT TAKEN: NEW YORK’S ‘BRIDGE OF SIGHS’ (THE NEW VERSION IS DULLER; THIS DATES FROM 1905)I wound up at a detention center that probably doesn’t exist, somewhere in downtown Manhattan. I had been rendered for secret investigation—dissolved like the World Trade Center, but without witnesses.

I was handed off to people who never spoke. I figured they worked for the Department of Homeland Security, perhaps even for RAISE. They walked me a short distance and stripped off my clothes. They attached my cuffed wrists to an apparatus that forced me to bend as they deeply inspected my filthy butt. I mumbled that the process would be easier if they let me shower. No answer.

Next my hood was removed as I stood spread-eagled in a white room. Someone in a streamlined Darth Vader helmet swiftly cut my hair and shaved my head and face as a camera clicked. It hurt whenever the razor encountered bruises and cuts. There was a delay while someone soaped my eyes and checked the damage. Apparently I didn’t need stitches: A hand held my eyelids wide, one by one, so sensors could scan my face for what I presume is a wealth of biometric detail. I’ll forever be known by biometric readers, though my features with whole, healthy flesh might confuse them.

After restoring the hood, which smelled worse over my cleaned face, they elevated me to another floor, walked me to a door, and brusquely guided me inside. My earmuffs and hood were stripped off. When the cloth sack was yanked, the door locked almost instantly with a deep, conclusive thunk.

The cell was about nine feet by six, gleaming white. It was empty but for a hard plastic bed and a stainless steel toilet. There was no window. Strong light beamed down from several locations, as uncontrollable as the cameras that scanned every angle of my box. The hood and earmuffs waited by the door.

Gradually I detected random percussive beats and clicks at a haunting volume, occasionally punctuated by mechanical whistles. No heavy metal for me. They must have known Motorhead or Metallica would have lifted my spirits—at least till 5 am.

The place smelled better than anywhere I’d been for days—until my stench caught up with me. There was no sink in which to bathe. Just a tiny plastic water bottle. I chose hydration over hygiene. The water tasted weird. I suspect it was medicated.

The food was mostly refined carbohydrates: oatmeal and bread, bland pasta and bread, or white rice with a few beans, hold the bread. I would try to catch them leaving it but the pliable plastic tray seemed simply to appear. (Did they have some way of making me fall asleep?) The water bottles were near-frozen. I never saw a shower.

There was nothing human about the space, no way for me to adjust lighting or sound. It was always cold and I had no covers, not even a sheet. I shivered for hours, naked, my hands cuffed in front. This would be my life 24/7. I’m told I must have spent five nights there. It felt like weeks. I’m still there.

Naked, Hooded, Questioned

Did any of you imagine an American could be treated this way in his own city? Of course I warned about the prospect in my libertarian way, but I don’t think I ever really expected it. Some of you will say I asked for it. Better me than you, eh?

My reward was an interrogation. Before my captors entered the cell, I was instructed to hood and earmuff myself. In spite of the handcuffs, I complied. Then I was escorted to an elevator that seemed to drop. We walked into an even colder room that echoed when they removed my earmuffs. I was still nude. I felt the presence of others.

A man asked if I’d been comfortable. “No,” I said, as flatly as I could.

“Is it cold down there?” (Funny, on the elevator I had felt that we were descending from my cell, not rising.) “Sure,” I said.

“Too bad,” he continued. “Maybe we can make things better today.” The voice of the state was assured, even condescending. As if I were a bit defective and could be fixed if we both made the effort.

He started with a reasonable opener—if one of you had asked it: What made me think I was an expert on bird flu or public policy?

I asked who was asking. No answer. “What is this, RAISE?” No answer. I replied that whatever agency he represented, the government has no right to ask. He chuckled. “We’re here, aren’t we?”

I don’t recall how, but the man managed to get me rattling on about H5N1. I was charmed that he didn’t quarrel with my assertion that I’d been correct about more things than the experts had been. I started showing off, said that the cool, dry atmosphere reminded me of a 2007 study (forgive me—I can’t be hunting links just now) that claimed flu thrives in the winter because it hates the heat and humidity of places like that prison barge—or Indonesia. He thought that was cute, ho hum, so I pointed out that the 1918 bloodbath wave began in August and peaked in October. So ‘cool and dry,’ ya know?

He abruptly told me that I am accused of indulging in terrorist activities. For profit. “No virgins for you,” he laughed.

Consternation must have registered through my hood. A woman’s voice surprised me with the news that New York State law defines terrorism as an act intended “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” She said simple gang members had been convicted under this statute. (She neglected to mention that a sensible judge later threw out the terrorism charges as unmerited.) These two were citing some hysterical post-9/11 law as if I’d single-handedly and deliberately panicked y’all into buying masks. As if people haven’t been burying their kids in Central Park! If there were two of me, they’d make us racketeers under RICO.

It didn’t take long to persuade me that the Feds could charge me with anything they liked—and make it stick. Courts, Congress, and Presidents have spent so many years gutting the Bill of Rights that all that’s left is a house of cards that can serve as a giant prison.

The woman read me a list of Web searches I had conducted for a week before making some comments about flu vaccine. Words like “danger,” “risk,” and “harm” abounded. Searches of a more personal nature were tossed in, inviting me to imagine what a jury might conclude from my googling.

They played tapes of things I’d said in my apartment over the past few months, edited so that I couldn’t hear Anna (or Nina) responding. You can imagine stuff I said after we escaped that bloodbath in Times Square or after Anna’s home was raided. I reckoned the Feds must have been spying on me through my computer. I wondered silently if they had pictures, home video. “We have visual corroboration of everything,” the man volunteered.

I had to relieve myself blindly in front of them in the interrogation room. It bothered me that there was at least one woman present. I reeked. I swear I could hear discreet coughing, as if someone were too disgusted to breathe fully.

Our first session ended when I conceded I might have been wrong in speculating as to how H5N1 had become a human disease. Every vaccine might have been perfect. No matter that I had posted this.

Everything but Bedbugs

I was so exhausted that I was sure I’d sleep splendidly on the cold platform in my white room, but they cranked up the noises in my cell. I swear I could hear mosquitoes, even though it was too cold for them. Then I felt something bite me. Rodents seemed to be scraping around, squeaking and chirping—not that there was food for them. The lights seemed brighter. It had to have been nighttime, but who knows? Maybe these people wangle overtime to bug detainees who never see a hint of sun anyway.

The only time I could see anything came inside the cold hard whiteness of my cell. I was miserable. I wondered if they had arrested Anna—if she too were freezing in some taxpayer-funded box for having tried to help neighbors after the flu killed her daughter. I felt I had known Anna for years, forever. I longed for her terribly. What did she think had happened to me? Would I see her again? I played songs in my head that she had turned me onto, especially Isis. Alternately, I imagined traveling with Anna to a warm place, holding her in sunlight, rejoicing that we were alive, together.

At some point I remembered that Nina had been due to visit me when the cops broke in. It was excruciating to imagine her arriving at my pillaged apartment. What if she had arrived when the cops were still there? Had they taken her away, too?

Nina’s in no shape to contend with Federal goons. They could crack her psyche with a question. I shivered at length on that plastic shell, surrounded by unnatural sounds, imagining I could hear her sob and gasp.

I thought about how tormented Nina must have been while she lived with me, quietly certain I was cheating on her. She must have tried so hard to be happy, to trust me, to enjoy life—only to lapse into torture whenever her doubts gathered strength. I appreciate anew how much fun Nina was to be with, how much pleasure and companionship she gave me in her crippled paranoid state. If I ever hear from her again and she seems to understand what happened, I’ll know she has recovered.

I hope Nina never showed up, that she called to postpone. The cops probably have my phone now, unless the Feds have it. Does anyone answer? What happens to people who call me?

When the keepers eventually returned to fetch me from my cell, I was excited to think further talk might clarify that I was innocent of political crimes. The boss started by telling me that they had evidence of my links to Mafia drug dealers and pharmaceutical counterfeiters. Not to mention left-wing rabble-rousers and antivax radicals involved in antigovernment activities. I was a diabolical blend of crime and subversion.

Still, there were questions. He wanted to know if I was motivated more by greed or revolutionary zeal. Why had I gone to so much trouble to build a global audience? When I said it had come as a pleasant surprise that people liked my posts, he said I’d be his guest as long as it took to learn the truth. I said I could tell he meant as long as it took for me to agree with his version of my life.

Uncle Sam Needs … Me?

Now he surprised me by saying he wanted my help. No, he needed my help. America needed my help. There were enemies everywhere that must be monitored and neutralized. I was in a remarkable position to help him safeguard the nation’s health and security. I needed only to tell them everything I knew. He was trying to get me a pillow, a blanket, a shower, a robe. Wouldn’t I help?

I kept saying it was all in my blog. He didn’t seem to have read anything but a few quotes someone had transcribed and handed him. I told him he should go read it. I recited my name and URL.

A punch to the gut knocked the wind out of me. While I wheezed and tasted greasy fabric, the man asked about a telephone number I was carrying when I arrived at “this facility.” It took further blows till I recalled that I had agreed to call a prisoner’s girlfriend if I ever got out of jail. Now I was being told he’s a crack wholesaler. So what? He seemed sober and pleasant. Who did they think I’d meet in the Tombs?

Now our costumes were reversed. My hood was removed, revealing a room that was much smaller than I’d imagined. I was facing a screen that seemed to reflect a guard, three men, and a woman—all wearing hoods and sitting behind me. A man started showing intimate images Nina and I had recorded of love play. I had scrubbed the stuff from my old PC’s hard drive, but the government must have recovered the machine after I gave it to Lisa’s cousin (who never used it) ... unless they got or stole the video from Nina. (If I ever see that poor paranoid woman, how can I tell her the Feds have a dub?)

I had no interest in discussing any of this. It was embarrassing as hell. Hooded torturers were watching me blush at myself. Was all this an implied threat to blackmail me? I mostly kept my mouth shut.

They showed a number of images of me hunched on my bike against a storefront as I watched the DHS unload Relenza at Penn Station. You could see my feet twitching as I tried not to wet myself and the sidewalk for what felt like the longest and dullest Andy Warhol movie ever.

The peoples’ cameras must have missed my blissful urination and the off-loading of the mysterious pallet because the show shifted to a long, wide shot of me biking across the highway to the party boat. Thereabouts, I could be seen aiming my cell phone at something on the riverside. They then cut to the pictures I’d taken, which weren’t much good. I agreed that the printing on the boxes in my photos could not be deciphered.

They blew the images up again and again until the pixels ate my brain. Nope, can’t read ‘em. I was shaking.

They started cursing, asking why I’d sullied the Department of Homeland Security with phony accusations. And why I’d recruited a reporter to ask questions….

Bart had actually lifted a finger, dialed DHS! They wanted to know a lot about him—a dead end, like all my connections. I met Bart once. I hope he survives that.

My life proceeded in a flow of scruffy footage they must have collected with facial-recognition technology. Here I was, watching the flagellants at St. Patrick’s, co­ming and going at Ric’s Place, selling masks out of a backpack in Tompkins Square Park, peering out of Sneeky’s window, obscured by a furry lump. I watched crisp images of Anna and me demonstrating in Times Square, then cringing on the subway steps as the cops and military charged the marchers. It felt good to see us dive onto that shuttle, though the footage of us hugging on the moving train was chilling.

Risqué Viewings in DC?

The creepiest images were of me walking through the Ramble at night. I had looked for cameras there, out of curiosity. Are they disguised as lumps of bark, bird’s nests? Do the cops bootleg the hot stuff as porn? Do they blackmail men who go there?

The government had even (fuzzily) recorded my fight with the men who attacked Anna on my peninsula. You could sort of almost see a gun pointed at me. By now my jaw must have sagged open. (They can show that to me at my next interrogation.) I was deeply bewildered, stupid.

“You can see we know everything,” a short man said. I recognized his voice as that of the man I had presumed was running things.

“Then you know I’m innocent,” I said. The guard boxed my ears till my head rang. I slipped into darkness, wondered if I was fainting. It was probably the hood coming back.

I don’t remember returning to my cell. I found myself in a kind of monkey hell paced by hyper techno music and flashing lights. Who cared? I was a disco hero. I won’t be giving much away to say I was feeling good in a weird way. I had kept my dignity. They were trashing theirs to torture a fellow American for nothing.

Suddenly—it seemed to me—I was back in the vault, exhausted. I would have confessed to anything for a hot cup of coffee. I was sneezing a lot inside the hood. The fabric grew slimy. They yelled at me to speak up. Someone slapped me. They bound me to the chair after I fell off.

After some murmuring, I was wired to something by an enthusiastic newcomer who was either a man with a soft voice or a second woman with a hoarse tone. The prime inquisitor was annoyed. He seemed uncertain how to get anything useful out of the system. Perhaps he doubted it would break me, or considered it a distraction. He muttered as the young expert fumbled to fit what felt like a metallic cap on my head, with additional connections on my wrists and ankles. All this, I gathered, was plugged into some kind of analyzer that would present highlighted, color-coded images of my brain activity on a big screen.

After some disturbing test shocks, they adjusted the zapper.

As I figure it, the contraption was designed to do more than detect lies. They wanted impulsive, unthinking responses. The machine was meant to scan my brain for evidence of certain activity—thought—and to punish me instantly for it. It proposed to eliminate contemplation, prevent captives from considering how to respond to questions. Forcing prisoners to cough up their first thought could be useful.

Newfangled Thought Detector

The round began with technical probes about the quest for a universal flu shot that wouldn’t have to be altered every year. Of course I had to think. I was being asked about something I hadn’t contemplated for months because it wasn’t going to affect H5N1. Zap. Zap. I don’t think they really cared what I said so long as they fancied they were watching me think. I was getting conditioned to it. So were they.

The next round of questions was ridiculous. Most concerned the LES DIY, which the government apparently views as New Improved Bolsheviks—highly motivated activists whose membership reflects every ethnic and interest group in the community. Bruno’s alleged past as a pot dealer, not to mention the charges I face, made all the LES DIY members likely drug pushers. A couple of aging Marxists who made food deliveries and the Navy veteran who made vats of rice meant that Anna and the woman who ran the community garden had been plotting armed revolt.

I tried to provide clean answers. Then a question would require principled consideration, some informed judgment on my part. I’d pause.

Their apparatus homed in on indecision. It demanded certainty. I started to feel it coiling, gathering juice whenever I started to think: Zap. The kid—as I’d come to think of the sexless assistant—typed copious notes on a keyboard whenever I jerked or cringed. Zap: Tap, tap, tap.

There was a long pause filled with murmuring and beeping. The young techie wanted to continue—must work for the company that developed the system. My interrogator said they’d done enough testing; he had work to do. He was told it was company policy to proceed. Phone calls were made, answered.

“All the more reason to go full-force,” a woman was saying. “It’s her or him. A bird in the hand....”

Finally the boss emitted a lackluster “roger.”

Six Degrees of Subversion

I was barraged with queries about Fitch. According to the boss and the vendor, my partner is far more active in antivax activities than I had suspected. Could this be true? Wondering if these people were crazy—or if Fitch might truly have articulated something alarming, even as bluster—brought me considerable pain.

The government seems to believe he’s concretely involved in the threats to scuttle the Internet with denial-of-service attacks. I’m not convinced that antivaxers want to destroy the known world, but I’d guess surveillance shows that someone the government thinks is central to the plot is 6 degrees or fewer from Fitch in some digital chat circle. I reckon he’d be shocked, perhaps a little thrilled. In any event, I don’t control Fitch. I barely understand him sometimes. By then I was responding quickly, with conviction, so jolts were minimal.

I gained a tiny respite when I slipped in that Charles Lutwige Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) campaigned feverishly for smallpox revaccination. This prompted a little huddle about how to crack me.

They returned with simple questions about Karl Marx, only to find that I loathe Marx at least as much as they do. “I am an entrepreneur,” I insisted, “selling useful things to people who need them. You have no business punishing me for it.” This further discouraged the chief interrogator, who countered desperately that I’m a nonbeliever. The government was complaining about my disinterest in religion.

I threw the book at them—Ayn Rand’s whole oeuvre, in fact. “Ayn Rand was a militant atheist and half the Congress claims to worship her,” I snapped.

The boss was dumbfounded to discover that I consider myself an Objectivist. Having still not read my blog, he was content to zap thoughts he hadn’t even researched. I realized he fancied himself a Rand follower, too, even though she opposed torture by any state, left or right. He asked how “an alleged” follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy could ever have collaborated with such unsavory socialists as the LES DIY. I replied that Rand had plenty of dealings with people who didn’t share her beliefs, so long as she felt (bad word choice, I know) her cause would be promoted: Atlas Shrugged’s publisher was an outspoken liberal.

I wondered if my tormentor had ever afflicted a fellow Randian. Amid a welcome absence of shocks, I told him what she would have thought of his profession. He replied that Rand was a patriot and had enthusiastically testified at the Congressional hearings about purging communists in Hollywood. Then he paused—possibly because debating Rand’s work was making me feel better while it paralyzed the machine and confused the young techie charged with interpreting its judgments.

“A waste of time,” I heard him tell the minion. The magic machine had basically confirmed to him that I wasn’t a socialist. Worse, I was someone he would expect to agree with. The woman said something I couldn’t hear.

“The genius of capitalism,” I said, “is that it recognizes the human urge to extract personal benefit from anything that happens—good or bad. That’s what I did with bird flu: I sold equipment to fight it. I also gave away information to fight it.” No one answered. The machine concurred.

“I’ll tell you something else,” I interrupted. I told them that the person my readers know as ‘Anna’ is a Randian heroine—a fierce partisan of moral values, honesty, strength, vision, and perseverance—someone who has elevated the role of the individual to glorious heights during a time of grotesque social decadence. Heck, even her persecution of me as the mystery mailer was Randian. My timing in praising her was dreadful, however, given that Anna was at that moment causing them a lot of problems by stirring up the Internet over my disappearance.

The machine no longer minded what I thought, so they took manual control of the voltage. They all began shouting at me, zapping me harshly for advocating reckless theories even as they urged me to cooperate. After some time, the older guy actually ordered me to “let nature take its course.”

So help me, I did. My bladder and rectum simultaneously capitulated.

My brain exploded, too. “Doesn’t DHS have more important people to torture?” My voice squeaked like the audio mice in my cell.

Just Following Purchase Orders

“Ask them,” he replied. “I’m just doing my job.”

“But you chose to work for DHS.” I sounded like a cranky 12-year-old whose maturing voice couldn’t handle the load, but I couldn’t let him pass the buck.

“I serve my country,” he answered, “in a private capacity. I wish you’d let me help you.”

What a joke. The guy wasn’t even a Fed. I was being zapped to bits by contractors. Some jerks—maybe veterans, or ex-cops, well-connected sadists—had been hired to make me admit that I had been scaring people for profit and that the LES DIY hates the government. This was a pointless atrocity by clock-punching cheeseballs who were collecting overtime on my innocence.

I tried to stick to my guns. I croaked that it was I who was coming to hate the government and that the LES DIY is a bunch of swell people.

The main interrogator was extremely unhappy. He wasn’t at all sold on the technology. The young vendor pleaded to continue. When the boss replied with words I won’t repeat, his female counterpart told the kid she’d handle the next session. The techie sullenly unplugged me and then someone hosed me off. The water was thrilling!

I caught some sleep in the white room, half-buried in a jungle crawling with bugs. Anna was out there, calling my name. It’s amazing what the human brain will make of a little rest when it’s desperate. I felt blessedly connected to her—until I’d remember those people in the hoods and how much they hated her. Had I helped them?

At some point I ate whitish paste. By now meals seemed scarce. There was no feeding pattern. I wasn’t hungry anyway. I was drifting, trying to focus on whatever seemed real at any given moment. Mush, tooth pain, a red stain on my knee, a pause by my inquisitor. My face was swollen, my midsection inflamed by poor hygiene.

Downstairs/upstairs, it was different. This time my interrogators seemed to be in a big hurry.

The woman was in charge, though I heard the boss grunt now and then. She began with a series of questions about Anna. I remembered reading that businessmen negotiate more fruitfully after women lap dance on them. A wrenching shock that followed a question about Anna’s politics seemed to bond my tormenters. I sensed shared gratification across gender lines.

According to them, Anna is subverting the other RAISE conscripts at the day care center. The government wanted me to explain what she preaches. I insisted she takes deep selfish pleasure in helping people because her daughter died. I know she feels strongly about things and I know she votes, but she doesn’t lecture anyone about anything, unless they’re late. She was never one of the LES DIY’s socialist loudmouths. (I knew she wouldn’t approve of my telling that to the Feds.)

When pressed for detail, I must have registered enough ambivalence about her ideology to trigger the shock mechanism. Their machine was registering a libertarian’s confusion at having fallen for a liberal.

Shockingly Awful—No Joke

Someone pulled me to my feet—a big guy, unfamiliar. Hands started messing with my crotch. I yelled, only to be pinned back in my chair, legs held apart. They were wiring my testicles. I was heading full force to Abu Ghraib. Next stop, Bagram?

Now they cranked up the power and the queries about Anna. I was shouting ‘No” to everything they asked, then just bellowing.

They stopped. For some reason, this made things worse. I was writhing without stimulus, nerves firing chaotically, waiting for the next jolt.

“Is she a subversive?”

“No!” ZAP.

Again and again and again … until I lost it. “YESSSSSSSS,” I screamed. But they didn’t stop. “She is?” “YESSSSSSSSSSS!” “Are you sure?” “YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

I was a screaming blur of pain, punctuated by precise jolts that linked my scrotum to my brain. My spine was a fiery passage to hell. I know I fouled myself, but we were all getting used to that.

A few times they emptied buckets of water on me. Refreshing.

Once I heard a door open. Someone examined my pulse and lifted my eyelids. Then a woman’s voice asked if I would sign a document saying that Anna was a professional agitator who used the pandemic to spread social disorder, using me to undermine public confidence.

I wish I could say I refused. I can argue only that no one in his or her right mind would accept such nonsense as anything but what it is—the fruits of brutal torture. Then I remember that juries commonly convict suspects who have been interrogated by cops like the two detectives who had questioned and beaten me. These folks had more time and better toys.

I’m not sure what I did. How can I not remember? Did I sign that thing? Would that invite them to do this to Anna?

I don’t recall being taken back to my cell.

I haven’t told Anna about this yet. I couldn’t. She was so glad to see me, so kind. She bathed me for hours, fed me soup and soft kisses while I sobbed into her instead of telling her.

I can’t write.

Forgive me, Anna. Please.

It's all I want.

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