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Citizen First-Responders: Models For Responsible Democracy
I write a lot of critical things about militarism, our unnecessary wars and our growing surveillance/police state. So it was heartwarming to watch the videos and listen to the stories from the Boston Marathon bombing about civilian “first-responders” who chose not to flee but to wade into a very messy situation.
It’s clear that quick action by some very ordinary citizens, people without badges or weapons, made the difference between three dead or seven or eight dead. For me, such civilian involvement in incidents like this presents a model for an alternative to the malignant post-911 world we now live in. Driven by fear, suspicion and secrecy, officialdom and police agencies have become, instead of protectors of citizens, remote agencies of great suspicion themselves.
We would all benefit if the impulse toward secrecy was discouraged and more information could be shared with the American public. This doesn’t mean an FBI or police investigation should be transparent and media TV trucks should follow cops doing their investigative work. It would require citizens to step up more. What this means is, for the good of the nation, police agencies need to be more vulnerable, since much of what is made secret is not for security reasons but to avoid embarrassment and to cover up unpleasant or even illegal activity by authorities.
The story of my friend Carlos Arredondo is a case in point.
Carlos is a much-touted hero in the Boston bombing for his quick and unflinching intervention that saved the life of a man who would have very quickly bled to death from devastating wounds to his legs. I know Carlos through Veterans For Peace. Ever since his Marine son Alexander was killed in Iraq in 2004, Carlos has dedicated his life to working for peace. As if the loss of one son was not tragedy enough, a second son committed suicide due to depression connected to the loss of his brother in Iraq.
I’ve talked with Carlos several times here and there across the country where he would appear with a pick-up truck and trailer assembly festooned with antiwar statements, large posters of his son Alex and many American flags. Carlos is a strong, humble Costa Rican man with a wonderful Spanish accent. He’s now an American citizen. Looking at his truck and trailer, some might see Carlos as an eccentric; but for me and many others his warm humanity always trumped any suggestion of eccentricity. Carlos is a man with a huge heart, a beautiful man caught up in the meat-grinder of a dark and ugly political period. More important, he’s also a very social being who refuses to remain silent or apart from others.
So it was not surprising that Carlos waded into the horrific scene and helped out. As Carlos was headed home afterwards, his sweat shirt soaked with blood, a You Tube video shows him telling a young woman on the street what just happened. His hands are visibly shaking from the experience he had just undergone. Here’s a radio interview with Carlos.
Clearly the FBI has its hands full with a case like this. And it’s not out of the question that they would send a couple agents out to speak with someone like Carlos. The agents asked some general questions and confiscated his clothing, which seems to suggest they wanted to check for powder residues etc and preclude any suspicion that he was involved of the bomber. But did they do that with everyone who waded in and helped out or just with Carlos, who turned out to be an outspoken antiwar activist opposed to the unnecessary and cruel war that killed his son? I called and emailed the Boston FBI for comment but received no reply.
Some friends of Carlos are angry at the FBI action. Carlos says he understands. Being an antiwar activist myself opposed to the Iraq War, the FBI action smacks of what most antiwar activists have learned over the past decade of our War On Terror: Speaking out against a US war and the US killing and destruction it involves smacks to many members of police agencies like the FBI as treasonous.
We members of the antiwar movement, of course, don’t see it that way. We see ourselves as perfectly decent Americans fighting for a better America. Since we tend to be non-violent as we insist on speaking truth to power, we are naturally trumped by police and military power. It’s a sometimes frustrating reality. Let’s hope the FBI leaves Carlos to cope with his unplanned 15-minutes of fame and does what it does best, sift through all the evidence and shake out the true guilty party. What we don’t need is what police and prosecutorial agencies up and down the federal-local scale to at their worst, which is, when they can’t find the real guilty party they settle for the next best option, someone — or some country — they don;t like or is too weak to be a problem.
It’s true the FBI does suffer from some illogical conspiracy theorizing, such as an item following the bombing that cites some well-documented, bumbling FBI cases. The trouble is, the makers of this video go on to insinuate the FBI is therefore somehow involved in the Boston bombing. The dots just don’t add up as they want it to. What I’m saying is, I’m betting the FBI was no more involved in the bombing than Carlos was.
I worked for years as a civilian EMT on a Philadelphia ambulance, so the symbolism of ordinary civilians without official badges wading into the fray is quite moving for me. To extend the idea, it’s also an excellent model or metaphor for greater civilian involvement and intervention into the areas of our lives in post-911 America affected the pathological secrecy regimes that have taken over our governmental, military and police agencies.
In the videos from the Boston bombing you first see people stunned by the blast. They wander around among the smoke for a moment trying to figure out what’s going on and what to do. Then they begin to hear the screams and moans of agony; they get a glimpse of bodies and the incredible amounts of blood spread around in a matter of seconds. The smell must be a mix of acrid smoke and human innards. At that point, people are seen enthusiastically climbing over the complex fencing put up to separate the observers from the race.
These were the real first-responders. No badges, no weapons, no official arrogance. Just pure human beings driven by a deep love for their fellow human beings. No politics, no ideology, no agenda or concern for covering their asses. They assertively thrust themselves into the scene despite the real possibility of a third bomb. It’s like those ordinary citizens who are reported to have said, “Let’s roll,” and jumped at the men who had hijacked United Flight 93, in the process possibly saving the most officious symbol in America, the White House.
A citizen first-responder must be humble and respect those with greater training and experience. But until the better trained people get there, there are things than anyone can do to save lives. The violent times we live in — which we Americans share responsibly for — are not for squeamishness. In Carlos’ case, he essentially triaged the situation and decided to focus on Jeff Bauman’s potentially mortal injuries. He could see the femoral artery shooting blood out like a hose from the confused flesh of what was left of Bauman’s right leg. He had the alertness to simply clamp it with his fingers, which you can actually see him doing in the photo above. He and another man applied tourniquets. In the end, Bauman lost both his legs, but he was alive.
Medical experts go back and forth on tourniquets; right now, they are recommended. Basically, a tourniquet is a strip of cloth or some facsimile tied around the extremity and twisted with a stick inserted between the tourniquet and the extremity. If a tourniquet is not possible, strong pressure on the wound helps. If nothing else, a citizen can hold a person’s hand and assure him or her you will not leave them. In the case of a mortal wound, there’s what might be called the “hospice effect” — the pure human connection with someone dying that can make that person’s last minutes vastly more comfortable.
The point for me concerning all this selfless — or communal — behavior is how much we need more of it and less of the misguided, vengefully violent responses that have marked too many of our past experiences as Americans and have arguably created even more enemies for us.
This made me think of after 911 speaking with my neighbor, an ex-Philly cop. He spoke proudly of calling Senator Arlen Specter’s office to tell them he was a voter and, he said, “I want blood.” Someone had to pay for 911 by feeling the blunt trauma of our violence. And it didn’t seem to matter to my neighbor whether the attack made any sense or whether it might make things even worse. The point was to attack and, thus, feel better.
Then there was the man I ran into waiting in line at a Burger King in 1983. It was two days after October 23rd when 299 Marines had been blown up in Beirut. A copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer was sitting on the counter with a headline on the Grenada invasion. Someone started a conversation in the line. When I raised doubts about the Grenada invasion, the man blurted out: “We had to show ‘em!” I pointed out that the two events were totally unconnected. He looked at me like I was from Mars. “We had to do something,” he said.
It’s foreign policy analogous to the frustrated man who comes home and kicks his dog because it makes him feel better. Even if the FBI can’t find the guilty party, we don’t want to end up kicking a dog.
I would love to see more US citizens recognize the mess we’re in and assert themselves to climb over the fence that separates them from the over-officious and secrecy-obsessed police and military agencies that operate in their name. Get into the fray, look around, then humbly and as wisely as possible get more involved. Ask questions. And if things don’t add up, say something.
That’s what being a responsible citizen in a democracy means to me. Fear seems to have overwhelmed that kind of responsibility in our post-911 society. Hey, we all live here; not just those with weapons and badges.
JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent three-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.