It was one of those crisp, clear 50 degree winter days with hard-packed snow that makes Taos, New Mexico a world-class ski resort and brings a steady stream of celebrities to this remote mountain hamlet. I’d taken the morning off to ski with a friend from out of town and two of his kids. Our wives had planned to meet us for lunch at a restaurant at the base of the ski-hill, so when lunchtime came we glided in, unbuckled our skis, and headed in to eat. But before I entered, I was stopped in my tracks when, from the corner of my eye I noticed a familiar-looking white-haired and bespectacled old man sitting with two others at an outdoor table. Among those whose names are regularly invoked as testament to Taos’s celebrity appeal is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and indeed, here I was, face to face with Rummy himself. Knowing that the former Secretary of Defense frequented the Taos Ski Valley, I had fantasized this moment many times. To my good fortune I was surprisingly prepared to greet him.
I halted and took a step towards the table where he sat, not five feet away. I stood up tall on my ski boots and looked him right in the eye.
I raised my voice so everyone within earshot could hear, and I said, “Well lookee here! If it isn’t Donald Rumsfeld, our favorite local war criminal!”
He and his guests looked up. Rumsfeld himself looked exasperated. His two guests just stared at me in reproach. So rude!
I shook my head, looking him in the eye still, and I said, “Mister Rumsfeld, you have killed so many people, you have murdered and tortured so many people, that it makes me sick to think about it.”
From a neighboring table a pair of buff, wind-tanned blonde women in puffy green ski jackets stood up and moved toward me. It was clear that they were his Secret Service escort, well-armed no doubt. I looked at the two and, in a fit of patriotic bravado, I said “I’m just expressing an opinion here. As far as I know, that’s still legal. It’s a free country, right?” I enclosed the word “free” in the cute little hand-gesture for quotation marks.
I may be making this part up, but it seemed to me that when I spoke the agent closest to me stopped and nodded in agreement despite a tightly clenched jaw.
Chalk one up for freedom of speech.
Then Mister Rumsfeld looked at me and asked, “What’s your name?”
I told him my name (well, my first name). He scoffed and said, in a gesture reminiscent of the middle-school playground, “That figures.”
The former Secretary of Defense of the most powerful country on earth couldn’t come up with anything intelligent to say to me. And even if he could, I didn’t want to hear it. So I continued.
“I just have to say, we know you are a torturer, and a murderer, and there is a growing number of people in this country who would like nothing better than to see you spend the rest of your days rotting in a prison cell.”
Mister Rumsfeld and his guests said nothing. The Secret Service agents were moving in my direction. I don’t remember if they said anything, but the thought of the high-caliber pistols tucked into their ski jackets was enough to get me to move along, as it were.
I turned my back on them and entered the building. With my adrenaline racing I stopped and shouted, as loud as I could:
“Hey everybody, Donald Rumsfeld’s outside. If anyone wants to tell him what you think of his war, now’s your chance. A real live war criminal, right here!!”
I turned and pointed towards Rumsfeld’s party. “He’s right over there!”
Most people in the vicinity ignored me, but a few jumped up and made for the door while others gawked out the window. My wife stood up from her seat and went straight outside to tell him off, along with a pair of teenagers from a nearby table.
When the teenagers’ father brushed past me I said, “Now’s your chance you can tell Rumsfeld what you think of him.”
He calmly smiled and said “Actually I think he’s done a great job.”
I took a deep breath, and, being on my best behavior, I said, “I can respect that.” No point arguing politics with people when you’ve just told off the politicians themselves.
The teenagers’ mother watched as her children stood by Rumsfeld on the other side of a big glass window. She said to me, disapprovingly, albeit in a jovial tone, “Now look what you’ve done.”
Trying to stay calm, I responded, “Look what he’s done. He has waged illegal war and imprisoned and tortured innocent people at Guantamo and all over the world, and he needs to be told that that’s not okay.”
She didn’t respond, and neither did her husband. But I think, as much as they may have disagreed with my opinion, and as much as they might have disapproved of the public spectacle I created, the smiles on their faces meant that they admired my courage in speaking out.
And that, I believe, is what counts. As a friend said when I shared the story with him, we need to break the spell of disempowerment that our corrupt officials have over our country and over us as individuals.
I’ve seen on more than one occasion how power works. It’s like the high-powered weapons tucked into the ski jackets of otherwise innocuous-looking female Secret Service agents. It shoots first and asks questions later if it asks questions at all. And having seen power exercised brute power, with its violent disregard for truth I do not always have faith that “speaking truth to power,” in and of itself, can win any real victories in a society as deeply mired in inequality, injustice, and untruth as ours is today.
But it sure as hell feels good when you do it.
And, at least in this case, the truth ruined Rummy’s lunch. He left the ski resort for the day. For my part, I drank a beer and got back on the slopes, taking advantage of the adrenaline rush to celebrate a small but significant people’s victory.