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Posted by on Apr 14, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews, Personal, Politics, Travel | 2 comments

Midnight Expression

 

nolan dalla

 

PART ONE

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Midnight Express is a mesmerizing 1978 film based on the true story of an American college student who gets arrested and then convicted of drug charges who is summarily forced to endure the unspeakable horrors of the Turkish prison system.

After I watched the movie — its screenplay penned by Oliver Stone based in the captivating book by Billy Hayes who wrote of his experiences — like so many viewers I came away with a deep hatred for Turkey and its people. It was impossible to watch that movie and see the way Turks were portrayed and not be jaded by the cruel hyperbolic depiction.

I wasn’t sympathetic to drug use nor smuggling, mind you. However, the injustices of the Turkish legal system and the way such a relatively minor crime was punished left a lasting impression. For many who saw it, Midnight Express was the only thing we knew about Turkey.

But life does twist us in ways we cannot predict and turn us onto paths we do not foresee. Fifteen years after Midnight Express infuriated tens of millions of moviegoers, I ended up working for the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey in Washington D.C. I was an employee of the Turkish Government for seven years, between 1993 and 2000.

During my employment with the Turks, I gradually came not only to admire the fascinating history and rich culture of Turkey, and before them, the Ottomans. Working with people with very different attitudes opened my eyes to another perspective of the world — one that was not always consistent with my own perspectives, opinions, and values that I thought to be unshakable. Visiting Turkey four times during my tenure with the Embassy broadened my experiences even further. The photo (posted above) was taken during one of those visits, while in Istanbul.

However, one thing I couldn’t shake was the terrible memory of Midnight Express and the constant reminders of how Billy Hayes was treated by the system I now supported with my own labor. His book and the movie came up frequently among the Turks while I worked there. It was often the first thing Americans thought of when they were asked what they associate with Turkey. I even came to share the Turks’ resentment of the distorted portrayal. I began to posture defensively about it in conversations with Americans.

Fuck Billy Hayes. He was a drug smuggler. He did the crime, so he should have done the time! He got what he deserved!

Nonetheless, I couldn’t refute his very real story of a grave injustice at the hands of a government that was essentially run by a military dictatorship (in the 1970s). I couldn’t defend a corrupt system where an admittedly guilty man gets convicted, serves most of his sentence, and then just a few months before being released gets *retried* again for the same crime and subsequently is given life imprisonment. Imagine that for a shocker. Life imprisonment!

Sometime around 1997, while still in the employ of the Turks, it occurred to me I’d never actually read Billy Hayes’ book, Midnight Express, which was the first-person account. Reading it with an open mind seemed way overdue.

The text of Midnight Express, penned by a college graduate who once aspired to be a journalist and commanded a mastery of both language and expressing his own emotions, recalibrated every thought I had about the story, the book, and even the movie (which took extraordinary artistic liberties and even added incidents that didn’t really happen). As I closed the book following the final paragraph, guided by Billy Hayes’ narrative, I was a changed man, or at least I saw things differently than before. There was no genesis of opinion, nor even a definitive finality to that story. All of life’s experiences and the way we look upon them — good and bad — contribute to the rolling assembly line of evolutionary thought.

Billy Hayes and Midnight Express had once again affected me in ways I didn’t expect. His story made me think of things differently, and in a very tangible sense had also broadened my horizons at looking at subjects in a more existential way — that there can be contrasting even contradictory truths which depend on where we are in time and who we interact with, some by intent and others purely by chance. The truth we believe today might be the falsehood of tomorrow.

Perhaps I felt closer to Billy Hayes and his story solely because I spent all that time also influenced by Turkish people, which was a clash of perceptions. This all happened more than twenty years ago. Occasionally, I wondered what happened to Billy Hayes?

I wondered:  Did he disappear? Did he try to forget about his years in Turkey? Was he even still alive?

Between 1997 and 2020, Midnight Express appeared on television sporadically and like a firefly to the flame, I felt the magnetic pull of curiosity tugging at my soul. I watched the movie a few more times, each viewing a chasm driven deeper into the divide between illusion and reality.

Then, about three weeks ago, something remarkable happened.

A local magazine was sitting on my living room table. I don’t even recall how it got there. The front cover showed a photo of Billy Hayes. Was that the same Billy Hayes who wrote Midnight Express?

It was. What was he doing on the cover of a publication about Las Vegas? He was sitting in a pose a Red Rock, seemingly at peace with himself. Wait — Billy Hayes was now in Las Vegas?

I was about to explore….and discover so much more.

 

billy hayes in las vegas

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PART TWO

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On the night of October 7, 1970, an American college student named Billy Hayes duct-tapped four pounds of hashish to his torso and attempted to clear customs as he was about to depart Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He made it successfully past the initial terminal search, then boarded a transport bus that shuttled international passengers to a waiting airplane out on the tarmac. It seemed he was home free.

But just as the bus pulled up to the jetway, Hayes was confronted with a horrific sight. Turkish Army soldiers were lined up waiting to search passengers for a second time. Recent terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization put Istanbul and other airports on a heightened state of alert. Hayes had just made the biggest mistake of his life. His life was about to change in ways no one could have predicted.

Yet, Hayes later said his arrest, trial, conviction, and five-years spent inside a hellish Turkish prison turned out to be one of the very best things that could have happened. Watch the video clip here, which runs about three minutes. It’s a short, but thorough account of Billy Hayes and the factual background story of what became the incendiary 1978 movie, Midnight Express.

So — almost fifty years later — what was Billy Hayes now doing in Las Vegas?

I read the well-written expose on Billy Hayes that focused on what he’d done in the four-plus decades since his escape from imprisonment in Turkey when in 1975 he paddled 17 miles in a storm across the Marmara Sea and crossed the heavily fortified border into Greece and on to freedom back home. Turns out, Billy Hayes had moved to Las Vegas.

Now 73 (his birthday was last week), Hayes has made peace not only with himself but with his once-hostile captors — the Turks. Hayes was invited to return to Turkey as an official guest of the government, actually the TNP (Turkish National Police). He openly spoke of his experiences and even expressed love and admiration for the country and especially its people. It seemed such an unlikely, even an impossible reconciliation, but Hayes had never *hated” Turkey or the Turks despite his imprisonment and brutal treatment.

What I remember was Billy Hayes’ book and the movie destroying Turkey’s tourism industry and jading an entire generation as to how it perceived a proud culture and people. Certainly, this had not been his intent. In fact, he’s been trying to correct the record and make amends, ever since. These noble efforts speak to the remarkable qualities of a man I somehow thought of as a friend, with so many kindred interests — experiences with Turkey (indeed very different), deep love and background in writing, a free-spirited outlook on life — but who I’d never actually met.

None of us is ever likely to be locked up inside a Turkish prison, nor understand the fear and nightmare of what it’s like to face a life sentence for drug possession (later changed to drug smuggling). Nonetheless, his remarkable story resonates with all who have read it, and who can now hear it, thanks to Hayes’ doing what amounts to a one-man show of his life and experiences. He has written other books, directed a movie, and even appeared as the hired assassin in a Charles Bronson movie, Assassination.

When our lives return to normal after the CV-19 crisis, I hope to go see Billy Hayes’ show. I expect there are many more things I can learn, not just bout him and bygone days in Turkey, but about myself. His story is a rebirth and a revelation.

Last week, Billy Hayes and I became Facebook friends. This is one of the many unanticipated benefits of social distancing and isolation, which is to create of our time what we want to make of it. Hayes doesn’t know I’m writing this, but I expect he’ll read it. If so, I have some words for him:

Thank you for sharing your story and for your gifts as a writer and for your courage to self-examine through intense introspection and for being fully human and for enduring and for moving to Las Vegas and now being one with us on social media.

Midnight Express, which factors in the title of Billy Hayes multiple narratives, refers to an uncharted labyrinth of escape from captivity. In a sense, we all remain captive to all of our outmoded perceptions, those old ideas, destructively archaic thoughts, and paralyzing fears. Yes, each of us remains in perpetual pursuit of truth’s liberation, of finding our own Midnight Express.

 

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Posted by on Apr 10, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 1 comment

COVID-19 in 2020 America: My Three-Month Projection

 

 

COVID-19 IN 2020 AMERICA:
MY THREE-MONTH PROJECTION

1. The fissure between the two primary camps with opposing agendas and clashing priorities will continue to rupture. This widening divide is exacerbated because opposing groups now align largely along political and philosophical lines.

2. Since mid-March, *health/safety* advocates have driven virtually all federal, state, and local policy. However, those who prioritize *economy/employment* have increased in number and in the volume of their discontent (i.e., 10 screamers are far noisier than 100 who remain silent). As public patience gradually wears thin, and many regions of the country seem (relatively) unaffected, collective anxiety will worsen.

3. Growing economic hardship caused by the shutdown disproportionally impacts the middle class and the poor. Flames of revolt, increasingly fanned by conspiracy theorists and the constant drumbeat of right-wing media, make current policies unsustainable. This means social distancing guidelines are now being relaxed as America begins to “reopen.” While this is a reckless public policy, and potentially catastrophic given what we know (and we don’t know) about the pandemic, it’s just as inexorable. Ordering people to prepare for a hurricane when they don’t see clouds and rain is ineffectual.

4. Unless some economic sectors are permitted to reopen, particularly those impacting small businesses and self-employed contractors (which number in the millions), acts of rebellion once considered unpalatable to most average citizens will increasingly gain support. Justified or not, resentment against social distancing has spread from a few extremists into the mainstream. Personal financial interests will prevail in the debate and will win easily in most communities. Largely shafted or shortchanged by the federal economic bailout, and eligible for only limited state relief, those at risk for losing their businesses will slowly trickle over to the other side of the debate. This has already happened in rural communities and is now occurring in suburbia. Aside from a few “hot spots,” even many cities will decide to take their chances. It remains to be seen if we end up paying a much higher cost down the road as collective impatience leads to compromises in health/safety.

5. Perceptions will be shaped by three primary factors: (1) Preconceptions (2) Source of Reporting (3) The Inevitability of Changing Attitudes

— Our preconceptions about the threat posed by the virus combined with our political affiliation will mostly guide how we react to future events, both good and bad. In fact, I expect these preconceptions will boll weevil disparate camps even further apart.

— If 200,000 Americans are dead by summer’s end, which is a quite plausible projection, is that good news or bad news? Your answer depends on where we get our news and how data is packaged. The Trump Administration will certainly spin this as good news. Anti-Trump forces will point to America’s death toll as the highest in the world (likely) as evidence of failed leadership.

— Our attitudes about risk, sickness, the aged, and even death are changing. Should you doubt this, think again. In war, the value of life becomes cheaper. What we never thought tolerable before, becomes not only acceptable but “normal.”

6. Perceptions about the elderly will be the starkest new reality. Older people will be viewed as more disposable, especially by the young and by a medical system that may be forced to make tough choices as to the priorities of health care (not just COVID-19 related, but overall as resources become stretched). Nursing homes disproportionally feeling the impacts of the pandemic will fade from crisis mode. But what would happen if the virus begins hitting nurseries and schools? Such a shift in the preponderance of victims would produce a radical shift in collective perception, and would certainly not be tolerated by any segment of the population. The key here is to watch which age groups (and racial groups to a lesser extent) make up the victims (minorities are getting harder hit at the moment).

7. Pursuant to #5 and #6 (above), I can’t overemphasize this enough. I’m deeply worried deeply about our collective de-sensitization. We are desensitized to lies. We are desensitized to corruption. We are desensitized to incompetence. We are desensitized to bullying. We are desensitized to suffering, especially the suffering of strangers. We are even becoming desensitized to death.

8. Note that outside of the Metro New York area, the number of COVID-19 cases (nationally) continues to spike. It’s not going down. The numbers are going up. Each day. Yet, restrictions are now being relaxed in most states. While some areas of the country are doing quite well given the overall threat, that’s not to say an outbreak isn’t possible just about anywhere. I project that as the vast majority of states do reopen and gradually lax social distancing guidelines, combined with some public resentment to restrictions, we will experience some shocking new hot spots. These outbreaks will almost seem random, like in meat-packing plants in the Midwest. As people return to work and socialize more, what’s next? Where? Who?

9. So, we are divided — politically and philosophically — which will translate into behavior differences, as well. We are desensitized. American deaths will soon spike over 100,000. We will increasingly come to accept this as a new normal. We insist that businesses must open. Sporting events must be played. Financial interests will guide our path forward and determine public policy. Now, the only question is — what impact will these decisions have? What actions are taken now and in the next three months will impact the remainder of the year, and beyond? Will 2020 be like 1918 all over again, where the first wave was only a small wave of the catastrophe that swept the nation in the fall, undoubtedly made worse by the reduction of precautions? Or, might COVID-19 slowly dissipate and eventually disappear as a serious threat? No one knows, of course. Our assessments depend on to what degree we are willing to sacrifice now to avert future possible disaster.

10. When looking at projection models, the most likely outcome rests somewhere in the middle of extremes. Those who insist the virus is contained or doesn’t pose a danger are terribly naive. However, those who insist on a national lockdown must also come to terms with the reality that such draconian measures are unsustainable, and could even lead to societal chaos.

Accordingly, I’m an advocate for a very cautious approach. This cautious approach must not be driven by extremists but rather by science and by experts.

Thanks for reading.  Comments are welcome here or join the discussion on FACEBOOK.

 

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Posted by on Mar 21, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 1 comment

War Games and Pandemics: Where are the Emergency Playbooks?

 

 

Countless studies do exist on what to do in case of national emergencies, including viral outbreaks.  The question is — why isn’t the Trump Administration following a plan?

 

When I worked at the State Department, I was assigned to Main State for a total of about nine months. One of the great privileges of working in that building was — with the proper clearance — having personal access to the vast library of information. Much of it is now digitized. But back then it was a real library with books and files and papers (on the third floor, I recall). Any State employee could go in and read most of the materials. One can only imagine how fascinating these topics were.

There were studies, contingency plans, predictions, historical analysis — binders packed with information on every conceivable scenario just about anywhere in the world.

For instance, if a remote American Consulate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was attacked, there was a plan. If the DCM was held hostage, there was a plan. If a Marine Security Guard got into a traffic accident on foreign soil, there was a plan. If a nuclear reactor in France melted down to the core, there was a plan. If the wheat market collapsed from a bug and 30 percent of the world faced starvation, there was a plan. If Pakistan launched missiles at India, there was a plan. No matter what the crisis — always go to the playbook. That was the plan.

When the American Embassy in Romania was overrun with refugees and visa requests and even had to evacuate because of a bloody revolution while I was there, we worked out of the file like it was a textbook. The instructions were like commandments.

State was but one federal agency of many with lots of plans and playbooks. Those I know who worked in intelligence and NSA and DIA and the armed services all did their own studies. They had plans and playbooks, too. We’re talking about the nation’s best minds working for years on what I would call “War Games.”

However, the playbooks were not always about war. More often than not, they dealt with things like economic collapses, natural disasters, technical breakdowns, and even threats like pandemics.

Now, we’re getting somewhere. You see where this is headed.

Government isn’t the only source of studies and “what if” scenarios. It’s what major think tanks are trained to do. They play games — with economies, trade, military occupations, corporate espionage, hacking, counter-terrorism, and every imaginable scenario. The Brookings Institute, the Rand Corporation, and others have experts who produce studies on what to do if shit hits the fan. That’s why they are in business, which is to play “war games” and then hand over the playbook when the time comes.

That’s not all. There are also academics. These are professors and medical people and scientists and other experts. They work mostly in colleges and universities, and research facilities. Some of them make it their life’s work to come up with contingency plans in case of various situations.

We see some of these academics in the news today, primarily from Johns Hopkins University, and other places. Certainly, their libraries have studies and dissertations on what to do in case of global/national pandemics.

So, let’s agree there is a multitude of information readily available on virtually every conceivable scenario related to a viral outbreak. We should know how to secure borders and streamline transportation channels. We should know what it takes to keep food distribution networks going. We should have the drafts ready to be signed and the orders prepared to be given. We should also have the studies done and the social science completed on what happens when perhaps half the country might be on lockdown. What happens to an economy on that scale?

What we are experiencing now shouldn’t be a surprise to those at the top of the federal government. The playbooks are there. There’s no excuse for indecision or delay.

Obviously, coming up with a cure or some way to slow down the virus wasn’t foreseeable. But MANAGEMENT of a pandemic is entirely foreseeable and should have been a relatively simple process. It’s called crisis management.  I am willing to bet hundreds of reliable studies have been completed on this topic, and dozens likely deal with the specifics of an outbreak of this magnitude.

Yet, all I have seen for the past month is an Administration that apparently has no idea how to manage a crisis. Sure, the medical experts and science people are doing their best. But the MANAGEMENT of this disaster has been criminal and the consequences could be catastrophic.

I’d be curious to read others’ thoughts as to why THE VAST ARCHIVE of materials on “what to do” in case of a viral outbreak has not been utilized. Naturally, no one expects political leaders to know every answer. Indeed, this is why playbooks exist. This is why they should be followed.

One reason why this Administration has done such a poor job thus far and communicated to poorly to the American public is, they apparently don’t like to read nor understand anything about the vast resources of government if they were to only use them effectively.

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Posted by on Mar 18, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 2 comments

The Parachute Question

 

louis gohmert

 

You’re on a cross-country flight with several key Republicans.

Suddenly, the airplane has a mechanical problem. Things go from bad to worse. It’s going down. A crash is imminent.

The only chance for survival is to bail out. There are only two parachutes on board. You are the only passenger who knows about the two parachutes. You will use one parachute. You also have a choice of saving ONE Republican.

The Republicans onboard include:

Mitch McConnell
Tom Cotton
Rand Paul
Susan Collins
Ted Cruz
Devin Nunes
Louis Gohmert
Jim Jordan

So, now — the question. Just as you are about to bail out, you have a difficult decision to make. What’s your choice?

Do you hide the second parachute in the overhead bin or under the seat?

 

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