May 8, 2010
A Tale of Two Car BombsBy Robert Gelinas
It happened on August 8, 1981, at 7:21 am (some reports said it was 7:15, but I was there, about a hundred yards away).
I felt it more than heard it. The first sensations were the air in the room slapping me, stinging my face, and the impact tremor beneath my feet. Then there was dark dread: Oh, no, a plane must have crashed right outside!
I ran to the closest exit, the backdoor, and tried to open it. It wouldn't budge. A fellow airman and I kicked it open. Outside the Ramstein Air Force Base Communications Center, on a sunny summer morning in West Germany, it was raining large metal fragments. A moment later, as we tentatively ventured outside, a large, mushrooming cloud on the other side of the building began to darken the sky. Running around to the front of the one-story building, to the parking lot the Comm Center shared with the multi-story U.S. Air Force's European headquarters building (HQ USAFE), brought us a sight no one was prepared to see.
Cars were obliterated, twisted and piled atop each other, burning, as was the front of the headquarters building. Bodies lay strewn everywhere. Two people died that day. Twenty were injured, some severely. The horrifying carnage before us was said to be the work of the Baader-Meinhof gang, allegedly part of the "Red Army Faction." Labels didn't really matter. They were terrorists.
A terrorist car bombing failed in Times Square on Saturday, May 2, 2010, at around 6:30 pm.
Inside the vehicle were found two propane tanks. Experts said that if the bomb had worked, it would have made a fireball and could have caused many casualties. I consider that an understatement, for the Ramstein car bomb also used propane tanks as its explosive element -- three of them, although only two detonated. The third one was propelled through the front wall of the headquarters building a few stories up and caught by a steam radiator on the other side.
Life changed for me that day.
Before 8/8/81, I used to tease my family and friends back in the states about the "sacrifices I endured in service of my country." That is, I was in the Air Force and had been "shipped overseas" for a four-year tour. However, I was stationed at Ramstein, a major military installation located in central Germany -- which just happened to be four hours east of Paris (yes, France), three hours west of Bavaria and the Austrian Alps, an hour south of Luxembourg, two hours north of the Black Forest and Switzerland, and smack-dab in the middle of Germany's renowned wine country.
I bought a little BMW and drove it all over Europe (and, of course, on the Autobahn), lived in a house in a small farming town at the foot of a hill with the ruins of a medieval castle on top, and certainly enjoyed my share of the world's finest beer and wurst and schnitzels (inclusive of Oktoberfest in Munich). While a young airman doesn't get a big monthly salary, from my perspective, I was literally being paid to live and work in Europe for several years, a place where most people paid thousands of dollars to visit on vacation for a week or two at a time. Needless to say, I loved it.
But on that terrible morning in August, it finally dawned on me that I wasn't in Germany just to do a job and have a good time. I was there wearing the uniform of my country for a very important reason: There were people at war with us -- and not just the Soviets, but other people, who wanted us dead and everything we stood for destroyed.
It was the height of the Cold War. Sure, there were Soviet SS-20 missiles positioned in Eastern Europe six minutes away from us (as the crow/missile flies). If they were ever fired, there wouldn't have been enough time to let everyone know they were on the way, and therefore, we would have been toast. We all knew it, but in practical terms of everyday life, that little fun fact was more of an academic threat, something abstract, far away, theoretical, hypothetical...kinda-sorta important thing, but not really. Ein mal bier, bitte!
On the other hand, the car bomb in Germany was gut-wrenchingly real -- real enough to feel, and hear, and smell, and see. For me personally, that day was a moment of shocking clarity and sobering realization about the world in which we lived, beyond its often quite pleasurable trappings -- but more importantly, about my sense of duty as an American citizen. With rights and privileges come responsibilities.
The car bomb in New York last weekend was just as real. And if not for the mistakes of an inept bomber and the vigilance of a few fellow citizens and police officers, this attack could potentially have been just as deadly as the one in Germany in 1981, if not more so, considering that it was attempted in a much more densely populated area.
Ironically, because the Times Square bomb didn't go off, far too many Americans may be tempted to dismiss the incident. They'll go about their business and obliviously enjoy their lives, complacently relegating yet another close-call to just one more dire news story, part of the often-disconcerting background noise of life...an abstract, faraway, theoretical, hypothetical...kinda-sorta important thing, but not really. Let's go to the mall!
It is said that upon the close of the constitutional convention in 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin as he left Independence Hall, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin replied, "A republic, if you can keep it."
"Keeping" our exceptional republic has been each of our citizens' constant charge and vigilant duty since that day in Philadelphia -- though, to our common peril, many in our last few generations have never been taught that.
Consequently, if our republic is to survive, we must all come to realize with sobering clarity, as I did almost thirty years ago, that our enemies are not limited to the uniformed armies of hostile nations, nor only the stateless jihadists of terror and their bombs. In reality, our republic is most threatened by every advocate and agent of tyranny, foreign and domestic -- anyone who would deign to subvert our rights, freedoms, and liberty. When Ben Franklin said "if you can keep it," he was speaking of an unceasing common duty of all Americans, for all time.
President Ronald Reagan understood Franklin's point well, admonishing us: