MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO, I moved from a tranquil rural family home in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to Bogota, Colombia, a country that, then as now, was mired in civil war between the government and leftist guerrillas. It was also struggling with the ascendency of powerful, mostly right-wing, narco-traffickers.
It was an extraordinary transition for me. The Colombian army and associated police forces were everywhere, heavily armed with automatic weapons. I was searched leaving the airport.
Just a couple of weeks after I arrived in Bogota, a loud boom woke me in the very early hours of a weekday morning. I distinctly heard several more booms farther away, and I realized that this wasn’t an accident. Like those in Boston this week, the second explosion confirmed that it was a deliberate act. There were, if my memory serves me, five or six bombs scattered around Bogota on that day.
This time it was the leftists. Those campaigns went on more or less consistently over the three years that I lived in Colombia and worked as a teacher and foreign journalist.
But this was my first experience with a bombing campaign. I got out of bed early to go see what had happened. One of the explosions targeted a bank just a couple of blocks from my apartment, in a neighborhood called Sears, named for the department store. The bank was the one I used, Davivienda, a large national chain. The block was roped off, but I could see the gaping hole of what had been my bank. The front and first floor were shattered. Masonry and broken glass covered the sidewalk and street in front — workers were already out in the early morning to clean up the damage. Electrical and telephone lines hung from the second and third floors into the interior.
My account of how the bank workers set up manual calculating machines and went back to work within 48 hours helped me land a job with Tom Quinn, Time’s Bogota correspondent, who was working with a local businessman to start The Colombian Post, an English-language newspaper.
So in that sense I suppose I benefited from the violence. But to be honest, as a young and foolish gringo, I usually pretended that it couldn’t affect me. Sure, the institute at which I taught English was bombed with a small grenade or improvised explosive. But there weren’t any classes going on at the time — the administration had to repair the front door. My school was the Centro Colombo-Americano, which also included the bi-national cultural exchange center and English-language library, so anti-American radicals — some of whom were probably my students — frequently targeted the building.
And once, while riding the bus to work, I saw a market go up in flames after a small explosion. That shook me up a bit, but again, I didn’t feel targeted. I lived about 50 blocks north of downtown, in a relatively safe neighborhood called Chapinero, right outside a military safe zone, where foreign businessmen, some diplomats and second-string oligarchs lived. So I had American-style banks and supermarkets and drugstores and it all felt safe.
But one thing no one, foreigners or Colombians, could miss was the ever-present army and security forces. They sometimes would stop and frisk everyone on the street. Once, a friend and I were stopped downtown in one of the larger roundups. We had our government IDs — because God help you, if you didn’t have your ID, you would be immediately suspected of being a guerrilla — but that didn’t mean we were off the hook. My friend, also American, lived downtown and carried a small knife for protection against street thieves.
The army officer in charge took the knife away. He could’ve arrested my friend, and maybe me, too, but he was being a nice guy. What happened then still makes me laugh. The crowd of men and women from Bogota who were also being frisked started arguing with the lieutenant, telling him that we, as silly gringos, needed some protection. So the officer shrugged and returned the pocket knife to my friend.
The incident was just one of the everyday interactions we would have with security forces. And it was a reminder that even if we chose not to look, violence was just around the corner. We were living in a state of terror.
Several years after I moved to Bogota, things took a turn for the worse. Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cocaine cartel, a former member of the Colombian congress and a self-made billionaire narco-trafficker, escaped from a Colombian prison and launched a war against the society — especially against the city of Bogota, the national capital and Medellin’s rival.
While the bombs from the leftists were usually small and targeted property — although certainly there were casualties — Escobar’s bombs were huge, vehicles packed with explosives.
One of El Doctor’s bombs blew up a large bank headquarters just a few blocks from my third apartment. What once was a 10-story office building was just a hole in the ground. Power and water to my fifth-floor apartment were knocked out for weeks.
I didn’t feel so safe anymore.
The worst, though, came when one of Escobar’s bombs went off outside a school-book, stationary and toy store downtown, during a national holiday just before the resumption of grade-school classes in early 1993. Twenty people were killed, including at least four children. It was a slaughter, one of many committed on Escobar’s orders or in his name over a 30-year reign of violence. Escobar’s violence ended with his death at the hands of Colombian military, backed by U.S. intelligence, in his home town of Medellin.
Years later, I am reminded of my life in Colombia when I hear a loud bang. What I fear is the concussion, the feeling of pressure and the slight shaking of earth, that accompanies a large bomb.
Though the violence in Colombia has dropped significantly (occasional bombs still go off, blamed on the leftists), army and police remain ubiquitous throughout urban Colombian neighborhoods. It is the compromise that Colombia has made for a modicum of security. Cars and people are routinely searched.
And what once looked like a problem for war-torn countries in Latin America or the Middle East is also becoming a distinctly American problem, with a distinctly American response. The public safety that Colombia attempts to accomplish through the brute force of its security services, the United States is haltingly accomplishing through technology and a gradual reduction in privacy.
Over the last two decades, there have been at least 13 bombings or attempted bombings from coast to coast.
Eric Robert Rudolph, the Unabomber, Islamic radicals, racially motivated extremists: the perpetrators have had a variety of motivations, from Muslim extremism to native-born right-wing extremism, but ultimately the reasons are less important than the central characteristic that they share with the bombings in Colombia: They are all terror attacks, designed to sow chaos and fear.
Of course, Monday’s bombings in Boston reminded me again of the violence in Colombia. We don’t, at press time, know who orchestrated the Boston Marathon explosions, but it is in line with those who would turn the United States into a country of fear.
In Colombia and elsewhere, the public has agreed to extraordinary loss of privacy and dignity and even freedom of movement in the name of security. On Tuesday, Congressman Pete King, R-New York, called for the installation of video cameras and other surveillance technologies in urban areas throughout the United States. Boston already had cameras that are, we hope, providing valuable information to law enforcement. We have them here in Las Vegas, too.
Already, in reaction to the 9-11 terror attacks and other violence, we have created an extraordinary new paramilitary service, the Department of Homeland Security. This is a path that we are on. What I have to wonder is, where will it end? When does the need for security trump our love of privacy? When does the threat of terror fundamentally alter who we are? How far do we go in the face of very real threats of terror to our communities and families? There are no good answers. I am reminded of the old Leonard Cohen song: “I’ve seen the future, brother, and it is murder.”