The New Rules of Engagement
My oldest uncle and I were born on the same date — 35 years apart. We had a joint birthday party once when I turned 8. He was my grandmother’s favorite child. (I used to think I could parlay the shared birthday into being her favorite grandchild, but with no success.)
He was a semi-God in the Panamanian town where he lived with his wife and two kids. He was Captain of the Bomberos (Panama’s fire department) and President of the oldest Lodge in the country. Four days before Christmas in 1990, he suddenly died of a heart attack. He was 44.
The funeral lasted 9 hours, everyone within 70 miles of Colon was there. The city shut down. Cars were lined up for miles to get to the gravesite — and people… well, it looked like old footage from the marches on Washington.
To this day, if I meet a native Panamanian and tell them I’m his niece, it’s always worth a boatload of cool points.
He was a widely respected and adored.
He was also a “terrorist.”
Well, to be fair, in those days they called them protestors, or at worst, rioters. But no doubt about it, he threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at U.S. Soldiers guarding the Canal Zone – a strip of land in the midst of Panama, that was occupied by Americans and declared a U.S. territory.
From what I know, through anecdotes and articles. Segregation was pretty fierce in Panama during the 1960s. Not just between blacks and whites, but between Panamanian and Americans.
In the Canal Zone, all the schools and municipal buildings flew the American flag, only American citizens could receive services at Zone hospitals (which were the best), the famous and fanciest hotels did not allow blacks and certainly not black Panamanians. Only American citizens could attend the Canal Zone schools.
In 1964, Panamanian high school students demanded that the Panamanian flag fly over all public high schools.
The Americans refused and instead decided that no flags would fly outside the Canal Zone schools.
For more than two weeks in the Winter of ’64 riots broke out after Panamanian kids tried to fly the Panamanian flag over Balboa High School.
More than two dozen kids were killed by Zone police and soldiers and a number soldiers were killed by student snipers.
My grandfather forbade all his children from getting involved, my grandmother even threatened them with her evil eye.
But like most teenagers, my uncle ignored them.
He and his friends, armed with sticks, and stones and whatever else they could pick up on the streets, headed to protest the U.S. occupation and demand the recognition of Panamanian sovereignty.
Sometimes, his kid sisters went along.
They were gassed, beaten, trampled.
But in the end, triumphant.
Today, I watch stories about the uprisings in Haiti, Chechnya, and the Gaza strip and I think about my uncle the “terrorist.”
For the most part they didn’t have guns or sophisticated explosives, they faced tanks barefeet in their school uniforms. Then bloodied and scratched would tell their parents lies about falling out of trees or rough housing in the school yard.
Today’s terrorists are just as young, just as reckless and — I like to imagine — equally defiant of disapproving parents, but now the geo-political world is much different.
They are the world’s enemies.
Instead of tear gas, they face poison gas. Instead of throwing rocks at tanks, they are crushed by them.
And we are all safer because of it.