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Too Close for Comfort 

The weird coincidences between last week's terrorist attacks and David Hagberg's novels have been keeping the author up at night

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
"Hagberg is famous for predicting in his novels tomorrow's headlines, but where did he learn so much about Osama bin Laden?"

-- Opening PR blurb to Joshua's Hammer, a mass-market paperback by David Hagberg released in June

"M/V Margo

Southwest of the Farallon Islands

On the bridge the radar proximity alarm sounded. Bahmad, who had been listening to the police, harbor control, and Coast Guard frequencies in the chart room, came out to see what was ahead of them. The sky to the east was getting light with the dawn."

"M/V Margo

Golden Gate Holding Basin

A thin sheen of perspiration covered Bahmad's forehead as he picked up the radiotelephone and depressed the switch. "San Francisco Harbor Control, this is the Motor Vessel Margo with Charlie at the holding basin, requesting a pilot."

Home of David Hagberg

Vero Beach, Fla.

At a suburban home south of Orlando the telephone rang. Former Air Force cryptographer David Hagberg had been awaiting this call. He picked up the receiver.

"I haven't been sleeping much," said Hagberg, author of Joshua's Hammer. In the novel, excerpted above, Osama bin Laden and his henchmen lead an international plot to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge. In Hagberg's previous best seller, High Flight, terrorists simultaneously hijacked airliners in different American cities, then used the planes to kill 2,600 innocent citizens -- a number Hagberg chose because it's the same as were killed at Pearl Harbor.

"When you combine the two, you have what happened Tuesday. I just dreamt this up. And then you saw these pictures of the airliner running into the World Trade Center," Hagberg said. "What's happening is one of my novels unfolding. I may quit and start writing romance novels."

Coincidences extend beyond Hagberg's bookshelf. Police last week told the novelist he shared a postal address with two of the alleged World Trade Center terrorists. Abdulrahaman Alomari, who was passenger 8G on American Airlines Flight 11, and Amer Kamfar, also suspected by the FBI of being among the World Trade Center hijackers, had both allegedly trained at the Vero Beach pilot school Flight Safety Academy two miles from Hagberg's home before vacating their Vero Beach apartment Sept. 3. They presumably died a week later.

Because Hagberg writes fictional accounts about dangerous international terrorists, he directs his mail to a Vero Beach mailbox service, rather than to his home. Alomari and Kamfar, apparently because they were dangerous international terrorists, also used the same mailbox service, rather than their home. It's likely Hagberg occasionally encountered these men while fetching mail, police told him.

Casting about in his mind to make sense of the tragedy, the coincidences, and his emotions, Hagberg found nothing.

"I've been dealing with this for several days," he said. "In one way, I'm proud of my intellect. I saw this coming some years ago. On the other end of the scale, I'm absolutely horrified. It's all mixed up. I don't know if I have my shit in one sock anymore. My feelings? It's sadness. It's guilt. But then I say, "Shit, I can't imagine Osama bin Laden reading my books.' So I don't know. I just don't know."

Hagberg's cognitive dissonance -- seeing the World Trade Center fall and the Pentagon become a four-sided structure without knowing what to think about it -- may have been a common yet rarely commented-on reaction to Tuesday's attacks. One psychologist I spoke with said his patients last week expressed as much bewilderment as fear or sorrow following the attacks. A radio commentator referred to this blithe public reaction -- as expressed in a Newsweek poll showing a third of respondents saying they did not feel afraid as a result of the attacks -- as an American "lack of tragic imagination." Perhaps less poetic, yet more elucidating, Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, said that all experience, if it is to make sense, must fit into a category. And America is one of the few places in the world where there has existed no category for foreign-borne public insecurity. The idea that the United States could carve an inviolably secure space for itself in this world -- by force of will, by force of ideas, by force of money and of military might -- is a notion endemic to America; it's part of our ideological DNA. From Manifest Destiny, through the CIA military adventures during the 1950s, to the DEA's drug war adventures of today, it has always been an immutable article of American faith that, given the right hammer, we can pound all nails flush. We may be the only nation in history where the president can announce a $40 billion war against nobody in particular without provoking comment.

So in America there has existed no emotional context for massive, brutal attacks from abroad. And for many of us living in San Francisco, the most confounding aspect of last week was the elusiveness of an appropriate reaction. Tuesday morning's television spectacle so closely resembled a Hollywood thriller that, during the first few hours at least, it provoked the sort of breathless excitement most appropriate to a movie theater. Next there was the suspense of the unaccounted-for United Flight 93. It was like a horror show: tingly, yet not frightening in a truly meaningful way.

Early Tuesday, just after the attacks, friends and family called and e-mailed me from Mexico, Canada, and England asking if San Francisco was OK. They were distraught, terrified, empathetic, because they live in countries where people feel connected to the chaos that defines the rest of the world. I had to tell them everything was OK -- San Francisco had never been better.

Riding past City Hall, desolate since Willie Brown ordered evacuation of Civic Center earlier in the day, I was surprised to find that the city felt peaceful, like early Christmas morning. The Financial District was an empty skyscraper forest; the sidewalks, the asphalt, the entryways were filled with only quiet, pleasant shadows. Despite the attacks' portent, it felt safe, too. Perhaps it should have; our mayor, our fire chief, our chief of police, and other officials were holed up in an emergency command center, where they spent much of the week. The city was put on formal alert, government buildings were evacuated, and the command team called in off-duty police. About two dozen empty city buses were put at the ready along China Basin Canal, lest large groups of people need transporting quickly. The Coast Guard stepped up vessel inspections, boarding ships before allowing them to pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. The restrooms at BART stations, meanwhile, were all locked. BART conductors were advised to keep a lookout for suspicious characters. More BART police were put on duty. The Golden Gate Bridge was closed to pedestrians and cyclists, and bridge personnel were put on alert for a possible evacuation of automobiles.

All this was bunkum, of course. There is simply no way to prevent all possible terrorist scenarios. A single, briefly mislaid suitcase bomb could puncture the BART tunnel, killing hundreds. ("The sarin gas attack in the Japanese subway was a real eye-opener for us," a BART spokesman tells me.) A nuclear device in the trunk of a Ford Fiesta could eliminate the Financial District. And that's without considering the likeliest target.

As David Hagberg noted, "There ain't nothing like the Golden Gate Bridge. If I sat back and looked at symbols of the United States, it's the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, the White House, the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It's one of our great symbols," he explained. "It's our Eiffel Tower."

In Joshua's Hammer, Osama bin Laden is driven mad with rage when the U.S. sends cruise missiles into his encampment. He becomes determined to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge.

"He's hacked, he's pissed," Hagberg explained. "He's negotiated with a Soviet breakaway province for a small nuclear device."

The device is placed on a ship bound for America, disguised as a life raft. The ship arrives in New York, is put in dry dock for nine months, then sets sail for San Francisco, deadly cargo aboard. The terrorists, who by now have commandeered the ship, transfer the nuclear weapon to a tugboat just outside the Golden Gate. By the time the nuclear weapon arrives under the span, the bomb's timer shows seven seconds left.

But the terrorists hadn't counted on Kirk McGarvey: CIA agent, family man, 200-pound Voltaire scholar with abs of steel.

"With seven seconds on the bomb, McGarvey gets aboard the pilot boat, figures the device out, and saves the day," Hagberg said. "During the last seconds before planes hit the World Trade tower, would that I had a Kirk McGarvey."

After speaking with Hagberg, I thought I'd check on the Golden Gate Bridge firsthand. The bridge's tow-truck drivers had been working double shifts since Tuesday, driving vans back and forth across the span to transport bicyclists, who for now have been banned from the bridge's footpath. After clamping my bike into a specially equipped trailer, I clambered aboard the white Golden Gate Bridge Authority van with five other cyclists. Cruising past the bridge's first tower I asked the driver if he had been afraid.

"I was driving the tow truck all night Tuesday. And yeah, whenever I'd see a large truck or anything like that, I'd be sure to keep my distance," he said, adding that he's been working 16 hours a day ever since, driving across the bridge hundreds of times. With time, the state of emergency preparedness became prosaic.

"Now," he said. "I'm not afraid."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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