Duct Tape and Plastic Sheets

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It is laughable that the US government is trying to scare the public into supporting the war on Iraq. Our leaders seem to assume that the American people don’t know the difference between imminent threats and the simple scare tactics being used to justify a war on Iraq. We can expect that our government will use these tactics in the coming weeks and months, and we should be prepared to distinguish between reasonable precautions and those designed to serve some ulterior motive.

My family and I lived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, during the Gulf War. My wife and I were both employees of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) and my youngest son was in sixth grade at the Aramco School in Dhahran. During the months leading up to the war, we witnessed the arrival of hundreds of thousands US and allied troops. We experienced the voluntary evacuation and return (before the war started) of the “non-essential” families of expatriates. We were also proud to host young American soldiers, stationed in the desert, who came to the mostly American Aramco residential compounds for a small taste of home. Many of the soldiers had not had a home cooked meal, taken a hot shower or had the opportunity to wash their clothes for weeks, and those who were hosted by American families in Dhahran were able to relax during their visits in a familiar setting.

With the buildup of troops underway, we were issued gas masks, one for each member of the family. Americans received two sets of masks, one set from Aramco and the other from the U.S. Consulate in Dhahran. The Eastern Province was buzzing with advice served-up by public relations officials, political “advisors” and military “experts.” The recommendation that the expatriate community seemed to value the most at the time was on the importance of converting one room in our homes into a “safe” room, with duct tape and plastic sheets. This was the best way to remain safe, we were told, from chemical and biological agents. We even received special instructions on the use of gas masks inside the “safe” room, and we were issued special testing paper that, once exposed to the environment, would detect for any possible contamination.

January 16, 1991 arrived, and along with that fateful day came the first air-attack sirens that would serve as our instruction to hide in the “safe” room while Iraqi scud missiles soared toward the coastal towns and military bases of the Eastern Province. My wife’s instinct was not to take refuge in the safe room, but rather to open the closest closet (a linen closet in our hallway with no vents) and shove our young son inside and shut the door. Even under the most serious threats, we hardly used the so-called safe room or wore our gas masks. Instead, we roamed around the house trying to find news from CNN on Bahrain TV, and we answered phone calls from worried children in the US inquiring about our safety.

The “expert” advice that we received was little more than misinformation. The ventilation that brought a considerable volume of outside air into the house would have undoubtedly resulted in chemical and biological contamination if such weapons were used by Iraq. Most houses in Dhahran never shut down their ventilation system, and we later found out that even without ventilation, the duct tape and plastic sheets would only have delayed the inevitable. It was as if the military advisors were just providing information to placate us — to give us something to occupy our time so we didn’t feel completely helpless as the war loomed nearer. As the war progressed, we learned that the “not-so-accurate” Iraqi Scud missiles that the military advisers told us had an accuracy as bad as “tens of miles,” weren’t really as inaccurate as we were told. Saddam’s troops may have known about the Scud’s inaccuracy and may have targeted “tens of miles” away from their intended target; we witnessed the devastation caused by at least one of the Scud missiles sent from Iraq, courtesy of Saddam Hussein. The missile landed on a steel building used as an Army barracks located in the Souks area on the Airport to Dammam highway, killing 28 brave young American soldiers. It was one of the many sad moments of the war and some of us cried, especially when we thought that one or more of the soldiers could have been among our guests in the pervious weeks and months.

Now, twelve years later, the US government is telling us that we are in danger of chemical and biological attack, right here in the heartland of America. They have managed to scare some of us to a point of panic — so much so that they have to schedule follow-up press conferences to diffuse the hysteria. Our leaders antagonize friendly nations of the world, and continue to give reasons for peace-loving people to question unbreakable US resolve in fighting this “war on terrorism.” Our leaders further aggravate the problem by ignoring the entire world with arrogance. Our friends are nine to one against our planned invasion of Iraq and our NATO allies are scrambling to dissociate themselves from any potential war.

While diplomacy and coalition-building is taking place at the highest levels of government, the prospect of war hangs in the balance and our government comes to the US public with talk of duct tape and plastic sheets. What they’ve really given us is smoke and mirrors, and as they prepare to pull a rabbit from their hat, we should all be on-guard and prepared to distinguish doublethink and newspeak from reality.

Michael S. Ladah is a Friends Boys School graduate (class of 1958). He is the author of “Quicksand, Oil and Dreams: The Story of One of Five Million Dispossessed Palestinians.”

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