A couple of weeks ago, I was awakened just a little before three in the morning by flashing lights bouncing off the walls of my bedroom. It wasn't the usual time for my weekly alien abduction, so, like "The Night before Christmas," I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Silently moving at a sepulchral pace down Manhattan's Seventh Avenue was a motorcade of police cars, ambulances and other vehicles, some fifty or sixty in all. In fact, it was a procession, a cortege really, transporting the bodies of two young auxiliary police officers, Yevgeny Marshalik and Nicholas Pekearo, from St. Vincent's Hospital through the streets of Greenwich Village, past the 6th Precinct house, the police station to which the two men were assigned.
Earlier in the evening, they were shot and killed by a guy with a history of violence named David Garvin. He had just gunned down a Mexican bartender, Alfredo Morales, in a local pizza place, firing fifteen times.
Marshalik and Pekearo followed Garvin up a nearby street. He turned and hunted them down like prey, then was himself killed by other officers arriving on the scene. He carried a bag in which there was another gun and more than a hundred rounds of ammunition. Who knows what he next had in mind?
Auxiliary police are city volunteers who wear uniforms and patrol the streets but carry no guns. Pekearo, 28, had become a member after 9/11, seeking a way to perform service to his community. Marshalik, a Russian emigre, was only 19, a student at New York University.
You think about fate and you think about circumstance. Just a few days before, my girlfriend Pat and I had eaten dinner in a restaurant right next door to the pizzeria at which the bullets started to fly. Pekearo was a writer about to have his first novel published. The gunman was an aspiring filmmaker. You think about how much we owe our safety and security to the police. You think about the price they pay. But you also think about the price we sometimes pay.
Trouble comes in threes, they say. The day before the first of the auxiliary policemen was buried, undercover officers in Queens were indicted in the killing of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old African American who was shot outside a topless bar in a hail of police gunfire -- 50 bullets worth -- during the early morning hours of his wedding day. Police thought Bell and two friends, both of whom were wounded, were armed. They weren't.
And Sunday's New York Times reported that for a year or longer before the 2004 Republican National Convention was held at Madison Square Garden, undercover New York police traveled all over the United States, Canada and Europe to spy on groups planning to protest there. Often, the police falsely pretended to be activists.
In addition to surveilling groups who had announced plans to disrupt the convention, the Times reported that the police department's intelligence division "chronicled the views and plans of people who had no apparent intention of breaking the law...
"These included members of street theater companies, church groups and antiwar organizations, as well as environmentalists and people opposed to the death penalty, globalization and other government policies. Three New York City elected officials were cited in the reports."
Among the spied upon: Billionaires for Bush, a motley crew of satiric performers who gently lampoon the rich, and a graduate student whose masters' thesis project was a bicycle that squirts liquid chalk Internet messages on streets and sidewalks. He was arrested.
Certainly there were legitimate security concerns and Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, are no wimps when it comes to law and order crackdowns. But the illogic and pervasiveness of such insidious surveillance -- and the widespread arrests and detentions that took place during the actual convention -- seem unlike their standard operating procedure.
Who knows what, if any, pressures were put on them by the White House and GOP, anxious for a trouble-free convention (or perhaps even better, some snappy video images of unkempt lefties being dragged off the street)? The convention was seen as a post 9/11 economic boon and the city has had to fight tooth and nail for homeland security money proportionate to the risk here. Perhaps a bit of dirty work was the price some believed had to be paid.
Then, too, it may have been fueled in part by the paranoia that has become our national modus operandi. "The 'war on terror' has created a culture of fear in America," former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in the Washington Post.
"...We are now divided, uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist attack in the United States itself... The culture of fear has bred intolerance, suspicion of foreigners and the adoption of legal procedures that undermine fundamental notions of justice."
Another expert agrees. If terrorists strike our shores again, "Americans will terrorize themselves," he said. "They will constrict their precious civil liberties. They will eventually bring their society to a state that is not recognizable with what it was before September 11th."
The expert was Osama bin Laden.
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. He can be reached at the above e-mail address or in Manhattan at (212) 989-7622.
Copyright 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers