285: Know Your Enemy
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Sometimes the plan works out exactly like you wanted. Stetson Kennedy grew up in the South, always hated the Klan, back at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was still feared. And after the end of World War II, he decided to do something about it.
And so his great idea was to go undercover in the Ku Klux Klan. And so he moved to Atlanta, which was the headquarters of the Klan.
This is Stephen Dubner, co-author of a new book that, among other things, tells the story of Stetson Kennedy. Kennedy made up a fake name, started hanging around in bars filled with guys who had, Kennedy wrote, the frustrated cruel look of the Klan to them. He played a lot of pool, drank a lot of beers, until finally one afternoon he heard what he was waiting for from a guy he calls Slim, a cab driver.
And Slim quickly revealed himself as a bigot, saying, what this country needs is a good Klux-ing. You've got too many of these Catholics, and Jews, et cetera, et cetera.
And Stetson Kennedy said something to the effect of, yeah, but you know-- he said, my uncle Brady, he used to be a Klansman, which was true. But I hear the Klan is long gone, aren't they? And then this guy Slim whips out his Klan recruitment card and starts to put the hard sell on Stetson Kennedy.
Stetson actually plays hard-to-get for a little while, and then he joins up. He gets a robe and a hood, starts going to weekly meetings, learns the secret passwords and the secret names that the Klan has for things, which turn out to follow an amazingly simple pattern.
They would just add the letters K-L to the front of a lot of things. So, the Klan's meeting place was called the klavern-- like a cavern, but a klavern. And two Klansmen would hold a klonversation. And then the officers were known as the Klaliff, and the Klokard, and the Kludd, and the Kligrapp, and the Klabee, and the Kladd, and the Klarogo, and the Klexter, and all these ridiculous things.
Did they have a Klandshake?
They had a Klan handshake, which you would grip left hands in this limp-wristed way and wiggle like a fish a few times. And that was the Klan handshake.
The other thing about the Klan that Stetson Kennedy found out was that they were a pretty smooth moneymaking operation. And so there were all kinds of dues. And you had to buy your robe from a certain place. And the robes were very expensive. And you could only have your robe cleaned at a certain place, because they didn't want everybody to find out about it. So it was this big racket. There were all kinds of rackets.
I never thought to think that, actually, you had to buy your robe from them. I just somehow thought that they all made their own robes.
Not only did you have to buy your robe, but they charged $15 for a robe, which at the time was a lot of money. And they really were just sheets with hoods.
So Kennedy tried to use the information that he was discovering inside the Klan against the Klan. When his chapter was hired by local businesses to break up a union meeting or threaten organizers, he'd warn the union guys in advance. He passed along other information to an assistant attorney general in Georgia. He wrote editorials. He made speeches. At one point, he actually wanted to start a competing group that he also wanted to call the Ku Klux Klan, which in theory would have let him get injunctions against any real Klan group, on the grounds that they were violating the laws and charter of his Ku Klux Klan. He was having some successes, but it was kind of slow going. And then he harnessed the most powerful force known to man. I'm talking, of course, about radio.
And that's when he came up with this unbelievable idea. He was one day walking down the street. And he saw some kids playing this game of cops and robbers, essentially. And they were exchanging secret passwords. And it reminded him of the Klan, because the Klan meetings that he went to-- they would change the password every day, they had this secret handshake. It was all this childlike stuff. And this was right as World War II was over. And one of the biggest figures in all the media and in all the public imagination at that point was Superman in the comic books. But also the Superman radio show was hugely, hugely, hugely popular. It was on every night.
And he thought, huh, I wonder if I could somehow get the Superman radio show to do a show about the Ku Klux Klan, using this real information about the Ku Klux Klan that I have. And it could be like Superman takes on the Ku Klux Klan. Wouldn't that be cool?
When Jimmy Olsen, as manager of the Unity House baseball team, selected a Chinese boy named Tommy Lee for his number one pitcher, he incurred the wrath of a band of intolerant bigots calling themselves The Clan of the Fiery Cross.
So Stetson Kennedy started feeding them information. And they would end up doing four week's worth of nightly radio shows.
In a glade-- casting weird shadows over the nearby hills and lighting the sky above-- burns a huge wooden cross. Before it kneel half a hundred men clothed in long robes.
In this scene, a white school kid is brought to a Clan rally by his uncle.
Gosh, who are all these guys, Uncle Matt? And why are you wearing the sheets and hoods?
We're the Clan of the Fiery Cross, Chuck. We're a great secret society pledged to purify America. America for 100% Americans only-- one race, one religion, one color.
I don't get it. America's got all kinds of religions and colors.
When we get through, there will only be one.
Only one? But the Constitution says all Americans have the same rights and privileges.
The Constitution. Ha. We'll change that. Now be quiet.
And Kennedy wrote about this in his own writing, correct?
Yeah. At the first Klan meeting he went to after the show hit the air, the Grand Dragon, who was the leader of the local group-- he's trying to run the meeting. And then one regular rank-and-file Klansman gets up and starts shouting. He said, I came home from work the other night, and my kid and all these other kids had these towels tied around their necks like capes. And some of them had pillow cases over their heads. And the ones with the capes were chasing the ones with pillow cases. And when I asked them what they were doing, they said they were playing this new game of cops and robbers called Superman against the Clan. I never felt so ridiculous in all my life. Suppose my own kid finds my Klan robe someday?
Stetson Kennedy was also feeding his information to big-time journalists and radio commentators-- like Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson-- who would quote things that had happened at that week's Klan meetings. And I don't want to exaggerate the effect of all this. From a Klan perspective, it wasn't klataclysmic. But it was pretty klupsetting. They didn't like being made fun of.
The climax of the four weeks of Superman broadcasts comes in this scene that is pure poetic license on the part of the Superman writers. Basically, the racist uncle in the story evades capture by Superman and seeks refuge with the imperial head of the clan, who-- in this radio world Ku Klux Klan-- sees the Clan only as a money-making scheme, nothing more-- just a way to get suckers to pay dues and buy robes.
Come now, Riggs. Is it possible that you really believe all that stuff about getting rid of the foreigners? That "one race, one religion, one color" hokum?
Hokum? Why, it's the absolute truth. We've got to save America from foreign elements.
Well, I'll be-- I thought you had brains, Riggs. But you've become drunk on the slop we put up for the suckers.
Suckers? Who are you calling--
Our members, Riggs. The poor fish who want to hate and blame somebody else for their failures in life. The saps who believe drivel such as, a man is a dangerous enemy because he goes to a different church. The little nobodies who want to believe some other race is inferior so they can feel superior. The jerks who go for that "100% American" rot.
Rot? You mean you don't believe?
Of course not. You must know there is no such thing as what we call 100% American. Everyone here except the Indians is descended from foreigners.
Why, blast you, Wilson. You sound like a dirty foreigner yourself.
I'm running a business, Riggs. And so are you. We deal in one of the oldest and most profitable commodities on Earth. Hate.
See, that's how you do it, right there. You get to know your enemy, and then you put it on the radio as forcefully as you can. We have three stories today on our radio show that do just that, with one big difference from Stetson Kennedy's story. In none of our other stories today do things work out so victoriously. In fact, in the other three stories in today's show, when people get to know their enemies, it just makes things way more complicated, and more confusing. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, Know Your Enemy.
Act One, The Minister Meets the Martyr. We have the remarkable true story of a suicide bomber and her conversation with the head of the defense forces from the other side.
Act Two, I Am Curious, Jello, in which two former adversaries-- punk star Jello Biafra and the government prosecutor who went after him-- sit down after two decades to talk.
Act Three, Eight Percent of Nothing. How could we do an hour on knowing your enemy without at least one story about knowing the enemy who is your spouse, sometimes anyway. Stay with us.
Act One: The Minister Meets The Martyr
Act One, The Minister Meets the Martyr. I first heard about this first story a few years ago. And I was kind of stunned that it had happened at all. It's the kind of thing that you see in movies, but it's really hard to believe that it could happen in real life. Basically, the story is this. There's a country at war. And the head of its defense establishment decides that he wants to meet with foot soldiers from the other side-- the people at the very bottom of the military-- to understand better what's motivating them. Even more incredible than the fact that these meetings happened is the fact that a reporter is there to record exactly what they say to each other at one of these meetings.
This happened back in 2002. Israel's defense minister-- their Donald Rumsfeld-- decided that he wanted to meet face-to-face with suicide bombers who, for one reason or another, had failed to carry out their plans. Israel's intelligence agency, the Shin-Bet, arranged for a meeting with two Palestinians who had set out to blow themselves up but didn't. The first at this meeting was a teenager named Rasan Stiti, who didn't seem remorseful, and who told the minister that he had wanted to die a martyr's death to help his people, to get rewards in Paradise.
With the second bomber, it was much more complicated. What you're going to hear now is an excerpt from Vered Levy-Barzilai's story in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz from June 21, 2002, just a week after the meeting. Remember, she's writing for an Israeli audience about all this. The article was read for us by Enid Graham.
The meeting took place last week on Sunday at 2:00 PM in the detention room in the Russian compound in Jerusalem. Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer was accompanied by his military secretary, Brigadier General Mike Herzog. He came straight from a cabinet meeting, dressed in a dark suit, light shirt, and tie. The two men entered the room where the Shin-Bet personnel were waiting. The little room was too narrow to comfortably accommodate all those present.
They met Rasan Stiti, and then Arin Ahmed was brought in. She was very different from Stiti. He sat slouched in his seat and averted his gaze for most of the session, not daring to look Ben-Eliezer in the eye. Ahmed, in contrast, sat upright and looked straight ahead. Stiti was stiff. She was very expressive. He spoke only Arabic. She sometimes switched to fluent English, and occasionally used a few words of Hebrew. He spoke in a cold, monotonous tone as if he were reciting slogans. Ahmed, on the other hand, seemed much more sincere, and they tended to believe her. Ahmed impressed them as a young woman with a charismatic personality.
Before she arrived here, Arin Ahmed was studying communications and computer programming at Bethlehem University. She's 20, born in Bait Zahur, outside of Bethlehem. Her father died when she was still a baby. For reasons that are not totally clear, her mother abandoned her and moved to Amman, Jordan, where she still is. Arin's aunts and uncles raised her and saw to her education.
On March 8 of this year, she experienced another loss. Tanzim militant Jad Salem, her boyfriend of a year and a half, was killed. According to the Palestinians, he was killed by Israeli Defense Forces gunfire. Israeli Intelligence says, quote, he was apparently killed while attempting to prepare a car bomb.
Arin decided to avenge the death of her beloved by carrying out a suicide bombing. She conveyed a message to this effect to a senior Tanzim militant. On May 22, Tanzim activists Ali Yusef Mughrabi and Mahmoud Salem picked her up and took her to prepare for a suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion. They introduced her to a 16-year-old boy, Issam Badir from Beit Jala. They were supposed to carry out the attack together.
Mahmoud Salem instructed Badir to blow himself up amid the backgammon tables on the open plaza. Arin was supposed to wait on the other side of the street for the people who weren't killed or injured in the first explosion to run in a panic towards where she was standing. The expectation was that she would soon be surrounded by a large crowd. Then she was to choose the right moment and blow herself up.
The explosives were packed into black knapsacks. Arin said that she had already written a farewell letter to her family. She purified herself and prayed. The men explained to her that she had to pass for a young Israeli woman. So she was asked to wear Western-style dress-- tight pants and a midriff top. She did as she was told.
Then they met with Ibrahim Sarahne, Mahmoud's cousin, who explained how to get to the site chosen for the attack, and described the place for them in great detail. Sarahne transported them nearby. When they arrived, Sarahne gave Arin and Issam precise instructions, via cell phone, where exactly to stand so as to have the most lethal effect. They got out of the car with their knapsacks, and headed for opposite sides of the street as instructed. Arin stood in her position for about 10 minutes. Then she suddenly left the spot, returned to the parked car, and told Sarahne that she had changed her mind and didn't want to go through with the bombing.
The Tanzim men were enraged that she had backed out. They reminded her of the lofty status she would achieve and the great honor awaiting her in Paradise. Arin watched as the teenager ran and blew himself up right before her eyes. She again told her handlers that she wouldn't go through with it. And they brought her back to Bethlehem.
Arin Ahmed is not handcuffed when she is led in to meet the defense minister. She sits at the table dressed in long pants and a gray sweater, a tall, full-figured young woman with long black hair and dark eyes.
Ben-Eliezer, "Explain to me why you wanted to commit a suicide bombing in Israel. Was it for religious reasons?"
Ahmed, "No, it was something personal. I was in distress. I was depressed."
Ben-Eliezer, "Why did you want to commit suicide?"
Ahmed, "You killed my friend."
Ben-Eliezer, "Was he a close friend of yours?"
Ahmed, "Yes. We were friends for a year and a half."
Ben-Eliezer, "Did you live together?"
Ahmed, "No, of course not. There's no such thing in our society. But we were friends. And he was killed."
Ben-Eliezer, "So what did you want to happen? Did you want to kill innocent Jews in order to avenge his death?"
Ahmed, "I don't know what I wanted. I was very hurt and angry. I have friends from the university who are active in the Tanzim. We get together a lot and go out together. We were sitting together one evening. And they were talking about how they wanted to organize a reprisal action against all the military actions and everything that Israel had done to them in the last months. I sat and listened. I thought about Jad. And all of a sudden, I said to them, you know what? I'm going to do a suicide bombing. And that was it. A moment earlier, I hadn't thought of anything like that. This was on a Friday. Afterward, I went home. I spoke with someone in the Tanzim, and told them that I wanted to do it."
Ben-Eliezer, "And what happened then?"
Ahmed, "I thought they would take me to start preparing for it, that they would train me and teach me about weapons, something like that. I was sure it was a process that took several months. And then, suddenly, four days later, some Tanzim militants came and told me, we've chosen you. Congratulations. You're going to do a suicide bombing. And then some more senior people came. I was in shock. I never imagined it could happen so fast.
"But they didn't let me think about it too much. They told me, you'll gain a very special status among the women suicide bombers. You'll be a real heroine. It's for Jad's memory. You'll be reunited with him in heaven. You'll be with him in Paradise. And I did whatever they told me. They explained everything to Issam and me. This all happened very fast and then we set out."
Ben-Eliezer, "Did your family know?"
Ahmed, "No. I left on the day I wrote my farewell letter."
Ben-Eliezer, "And you didn't feel bad about what it would do to them?"
Ahmed, "I was only thinking about my boyfriend."
Ben-Eliezer, "And what happened then? Why did you change your mind?"
Ahmed, "I got out of the car. The place wasn't exactly like I'd seen on the map. I saw a lot of people, mothers with children, teenage boys and girls. I remembered an Israeli girl my age whom I used to be in touch with. I suddenly understood what I was about to do. And I said to myself, how can I do such a thing? I changed my mind. Issam also had second thoughts, but they managed to convince him to go ahead. I saw him go and blow himself up.
I decided that I wasn't going to do it. They were very angry at me. They yelled at me the whole way back. And they also tried to send me to carry out another attack in Jerusalem. But I had already changed my mind and given up the whole idea. I stayed at home, until your forces came and arrested me."
Ben-Eliezer, "And now what?"
Ahmed, "And now I'm here. It was a mistake. It's wrong to kill people and children. Doing something like that is forbidden. There's no way I would do it. And the fact is, I didn't do it."
Ben-Eliezer, "If you're released, what will you do?"
Ahmed, "I'd leave this place immediately. I'd go live in Jordan with my mother. I would draw a line across the past and never come back here. Yes, I faltered. But it was a momentary stumble. That's not me. I was swept up into this thing, but I came to my senses. In Jordan, with my mother and sisters, I would continue studying. I'd get a degree at the university. I'd never go near anything like this again."
At this point, Ben-Eliezer says goodbye and signals that the conversation has ended. Ahmed bursts out crying. "Please, Mr. Minister, wait a minute. There's something else I want to tell you." Ben-Eliezer turns around to listen.
Ahmed, "I'm finished with this. I swear it. Please let me out of here. I want to ask you to transfer me to my family in Jordan."
He listens but doesn't say anything. She sighs. "What will become of me? I have no future. I don't want my whole life to be ruined because of this. I didn't do anything. Don't forget that. I didn't do it. I changed my mind. Please let me out."
"To each his fate," Ben-Eliezer said. And then he left the room.
Last Thursday afternoon, in his office at the defense ministry, Ben-Eliezer said that from now on he intends to keep interviewing other potential suicide bombers, because they're the main problem that the defense establishment has to contend with. "This is an efficient, quick, cheap, and highly lethal kind of weapon that is very hard to overcome," the defense minister said. "That's why I want to meet them face-to-face."
There are professionals in the Shin-Bet whose job it is to do this. Why was it important for you to meet them yourself?
"If I'm fighting against something, I need to get to know it personally. I know tanks and airplanes and artillery. But I don't know the person who turns himself into a bomb."
Do you think you'll learn something that you didn't know before?
"First of all, I wanted to have the contact. To look them in the eye. To see if they look me in the eye. To see how I would feel, to try to understand directly what causes a young man or woman in their teens to throw everything away, to go out and murder innocent people, to commit suicide. I had to sit down across from this thing."
And what did you learn?
"I felt different things in the meeting with him and the meeting with her. And I learned different things from both cases. The young man said he wouldn't do it again, but I didn't believe him. He recited the brainwashing they did to him, nothing more. It sounded more like someone with a weak character whom the surrounding system had homed in on, caught and trained for the assignment. He seemed like a spineless young man, nothing special."
How did the meeting with her go?
"It wasn't easy. She showed emotion. She spoke, she was quiet, she smiled, she cried. She's an intelligent young woman and took part in a flowing conversation."
How did you feel when you were sitting there facing her?
"To be honest, I felt sorry for her. I admit it. I thought she was pitiable. I found it hard to fathom how a girl like her, an educated young woman with her whole future ahead of her, could have ended up in such a situation, ready to commit such an inhuman act. On the other hand, the fact that she did not go through with it and the way she expressed remorse touched me. I admit that I felt compassion for her."
What do you think ought to be done with her?
"I don't know. And I'm not the one who has to decide. I tend to believe that if she's released she will get as far away from here as possible and try to start a new life."
Isn't there something unseemly about a defense minister choosing to sit down with someone who almost killed innocent civilians and giving her a platform, and then even feeling such empathy towards her?
"Listen well. This meeting was held in the context of know thine enemy. None of the rest interests me. To me, this is an important meeting that is supplying valuable information."
She was just a hairbreadth away from blowing herself up and killing innocent Israeli civilians.
"True, and you don't have to remind me of that. I haven't forgotten that for a moment. But then she tells you her life story, and smiles and cries, and you remember that this is a 20-year-old girl. And you also feel sorry for her. My gut feeling was that she was telling the truth. She almost did a monstrous thing, but in the end she didn't. Of course, I haven't changed my opinion about the severity of the phenomenon or the severity of the fact that she was a willing participant in it until the very last moment. And she also didn't prevent the terror attack. But she did manage to move me."
What new and relevant information did this meeting provide?
"There is an entire system that operates to produce human bombs. Here you can see how this machine works. As soon as she said she wanted to commit suicide, the whole thing took on a tremendous momentum and went totally out of her control. Here you have a girl who suddenly blurted something out. I'm almost certain that she, herself, didn't really mean it. But as soon as the words were said, they pounced on her. They came at her from every direction."
And how does all this insight and analysis help us? The terror attacks are continuing all the time.
"86% of terror attacks are foiled and prevented. Understanding the enemy is always helpful, knowing the behind-the-scenes mechanisms. We are interested in the moment that comes before. I have a lot of information on the table. My objective is to prevent suicide bombings. That's what Operation Defensive Shield was for. That's what all the other operations are for. But unfortunately, while the Israeli Defense Forces are carrying out these necessary actions, the operations themselves become a hothouse that produces more and more new suicide bombers. The military actions kindle the frustration, hatred, and despair, and are the incubator for the terror to come. The religious and political environment immediately exploits this effect and dispatches the new suicide bombers. And the pattern is repeated."
You are the defense minister of the state of Israel, and you're basically saying that we're trapped in an endless, vicious circle, that there's no solution, that we have no horizon to look toward and no hope that this terrible situation will end.
"It is a terribly vicious and evil circle, but I do see hope. With Yasser Arafat, it won't happen. It will happen with someone else. As soon as the Palestinians have a new dream of a truly better life, of a normal life, the whole bit about the virgins in Paradise and all the other nonsense they've sold them will lose its magic. I believe that then, young people like Arin Ahmed and even Rasan Stiti will say no to anyone who tries to convince them to choose death over life."
Actress Enid Graham, reading a story from the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz from June 2002. If you like this kind of coverage of the Mideast conflict, Ha'aretz's English-language website is haaretzdaily.com. In all, about a dozen suicide bombers met with the defense minister, according to the ministry.
Coming up, Jello and a marshmallow sit down together and talk. That's going to make a lot more sense in about five minutes, OK? From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two: I Am Curious, Jello
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, on our program we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Know Your Enemy, the stories of people getting to know the people that they are fighting and how complicated that can be. We have arrived at Act Two of our program, another act in which two adversaries have a rare face-to-face meeting. Act Two, I Am Curious, Jello.
This is the story of a guy who gets to understand his enemy, but way too late to do him any good at all. It starts in 1986, when Michael Guarino is the latest hire at something called the Special Operations Division of the LA District Attorney's office. It's a prestigious job, a chance to try high-profile cases about a fairly juicy subject, obscenity. Guarino is just 38-- young compared to the rest of his colleagues-- and he is about to file charges that are going to make headlines around the world. David Segal tells what happened.
There's an old joke that sums up this whole story in a punch line. Be warned, it's a little off-color. It's about a guy complaining in a bar about how he is remembered. "I served in the House of Representatives for 10 years," he says, "but does anyone call me Mr. Congressman? No, sir. I ran a corner store for a decade, but does anyone call me Mr. Grocer? No, they don't. I owned a farm for a long, long time, and harvested wheat, raised cattle. Does anyone call me Mr. Farmer? Nope. You [BEEP] one sheep."
Thank you. Enjoy your salads. I'll be here all week.
OK, it's a little crude. But it gets us to this question you probably never thought you'd hear. How do you un-[BEEP] a sheep? What do you do if you're remembered for one of the worst moments in your life for years, even if that person is no longer really you? Michael Guarino has confronted this very matter-- minus the sheep, of course-- for a while.
We start at the height of the Reagan era culture wars. Tipper Gore is pushing warning labels on albums by bands like Judas Priest and Twisted Sister. The punk rock band called Dead Kennedys has released an album called Frankenchrist. And included in every copy is a poster by a Swiss artist named H. R. Giger. You know Giger's work even if you don't recognize his name, because he designed the look of the great sci-fi monster movie, Alien, which earned him an Academy Award. But the Giger poster in this album would never earn a PG rating. I'd love to describe it, but current broadcasting standards make that risky. The title of the painting says everything you need to know-- Penis Landscape. Let's just move on.
Guarino gets a copy of Penis Landscape, and he thinks he has the grounds for an obscenity charge.
I remember looking at the piece of art and thinking, just on the basis of the insert, that we had a great case. It seemed to me that that is the kind of material that most adults wouldn't want to see distributed to kids.
Dead Kennedys, for those who don't know, were a big deal in the world of punk rock, one of the most popular American acts the genre ever produced. The band's music ran, for the most part, at the speed of a blender on puree. And the lyrics-- written by singer and songwriter Jello Biafra-- were strongly anti-government, to the point of paranoia. They had a song called "Government Flu" about an imagined attempt by the US to poison its own citizens. Another tune called "California Uber Alles" compared former governor Jerry Brown to Hitler.
[MUSIC -- "CALIFORNIA UBER ALLES" BY THE DEAD KENNEDYS]
Guarino ordered up an investigation, and soon after, nine cops were busting into the apartment of Jello Biafra. This was the sort of case that could make a young prosecutor's name, and Guarino made the most of it. During the year and a half it took to get this matter into court, he was quoted in places like the New York Times, and he was soon famous enough to be denounced by Frank Zappa.
He wanted to set a precedent. And he was on a winning streak-- 30 victories in a row-- which made him a little cocky. He never bothered to research the Dead Kennedys. And when a colleague suggested he might want to listen to the Frankenchrist album, he ignored her. He believed in what he was doing. The law seemed utterly clear to him. And he was in love with the righteousness of his cause. At one point, he actually compared Jello Biafra to a serial murderer named Richard Ramirez, who was convicted of killing 13 people.
But as soon as the trial began, Guarino realized that he would have to fight for the moral high ground. He was up against Phil Schnayerson, a very expensive and widely-admired defense lawyer who decided to take Jello's case for free. Schnayerson had a mastery of the arguments and a sense of humor. Even when Phil was interviewing prospective jurors, it seemed to Guarino he was charming the room.
He seemed to be having a whole lot of fun with the trial, way more fun than I was having with it. And he seemed to feel like he was on the right side. And that's not usual, for a prosecutor to be involved in a case in which the defense attorney has this feeling of righteousness. That's supposed to be mine. That's supposed to be my territory. And so it was upsetting to see him so sure of himself, and so sure of the merits of his case. And I could start reading the jurors. I pride myself on being able to see what's on the jurors' minds, really almost within 10 seconds of their starting to answer questions. And I didn't like what I was seeing. I was seeing a lot of various degrees of hatred for me registering on faces. So I started getting the feeling that this was not a great case very early on in the trial.
But Guarino had a Perry Mason moment in mind that he thought was a killer.
You know, every prosecutor wants to present the critical evidence in a dramatic way. And I wanted the poster introduced by the mother of the child who had purchased the album. "Let's get Mary Sierra to the stand." And then she would lay the foundation for this poster. I'd ask her if this is similar to the poster that she saw in the album that her son had purchased. She would say, yes. And then at that point, I would have it marked as an exhibit, and I-- not Phil, but I-- would then show it to the jury. And it would be the moment that I chose, rather than the moment that Phil chose.
And instead of that happening, Phil, on his first question-- I mean it was like his first question out of the box. All of a sudden, Phil is passing this poster out to the jurors. And they're looking at it. And they are getting used to it. And he said, this is a poster that's ugly and it's offensive. But you're going to have to decide whether or not it's obscene.
The jury survived their peek at Penis Landscape, and then Schnayerson played them some Dead Kennedys songs. The band's lyrics, it was soon obvious, were blunt but surprisingly sophisticated. To the jury, and to Guarino-- who of course had never heard the band until he got to court-- the Giger poster now had some context to put it in a very different light. The defense called professors and music critics to the stand, and the trial became an art and history lesson instead of a discourse about protecting the children.
[MUSIC -- "GOVERNMENT FLU" BY THE DEAD KENNEDYS]
There's the way you tell the story of your life, and if you're lucky, your version is the best known. If you're not so lucky, some opponent defines your legacy for you. And if you're really unlucky, that opponent is Jello Biafra.
All right. Isn't this painting sick? Isn't this painting obscene? Isn't this painting sick? Don't you think Giger is obsessed with sex with the dead? Isn't this painting sexually explicit? Isn't this sick? Isn't this sick?
This is Jello, from a spoken-word account of the trial on an album called The High Priest of Harmful Matter. He toured with this material, and got a lot of attention and press for it. If Guarino's mistake was that he didn't really know and understand his enemy, he was up against a foe who is an amazingly close observer of people. And throughout the 44-minute monologue, Jello does a withering impersonation of Guarino, who comes across in great detail as a moralizing bozo.
I can't imitate Michael Guarino properly without a pen open and cocked between the index and middle finger, always kind of poking at you right at eye level when he talks to you, kind of like a little claw or something. Poking at you with his pen.
And here's Jello doing Guarino talking to the jury.
"Don't be fooled by the fact that Mr. Jello Biafra appears to be nicely dressed or smiling [? benignly ?] over here. And don't be fooled by the fact that their lawyers appear to be friendlier than I am."
Finally, he couldn't restrain himself. He had to do it anyway. He whips out the Giger poster and flails it around the courtroom for all to see, thus exposing its contents to at least 15 minors in the courtroom gallery.
By the time Guarino is waving that poster around, just about everything that could go wrong for him had gone wrong, so wrong that even he didn't believe his arguments anymore. Just as bad, the guy who was supposed to be cast as the villain, Jello, was coming across like the reasonable one.
Remember, this was big news, the test case in the '80s culture wars. In the international coverage of the trial, and in reports in newspapers and on television, it was clear that Biafra wasn't the only one who found the whole thing a little ridiculous.
Well, all throughout the trial we were seeing various anchors kind of smirking at the fact that we were doing this. That was unusual. That was different. I hadn't experienced that yet. But that was-- I did start to think that I was on, not the wrong side of the case so much, but more generally the wrong side of history. I just felt I was on the wrong side of history.
He was right. In the end, the jury deadlocked, with the majority for acquittal. Guarino requested a retrial, but the judge would have none of it. Case dismissed.
This trial was the start of a pretty radical transformation for Michael Guarino. After that case, and a few more like it, the priorities of the DA's office started to bug him. There were all these show trials that added up to nothing, and all sorts of crimes-- corporate crimes, political conflicts of interest-- that were just ignored. He feuded with his boss, James Hahn, then became so exasperated that he tried to throw the guy out of office by running against him for the district attorney's job. He lost that election. Hahn is now the mayor of Los Angeles by the way.
Guarino left the city, and wound up as the dean of a small law school in northern California. The whole idea of being a prosecutor and doing anything to take an opponent down didn't appeal to him anymore. He was more interested in cases coming out fairly. And once a prosecutor is more interested in fairness than in winning, he's pretty much not doing his job.
So in a sense, this trial kind of snapped you out of it, the substance of it began to matter more.
Yeah, I hate to say yes to that, but that's actually a pretty accurate assessment. If I look back, I would say that that was a turning point for me.
He was a different guy, but nobody knew it. He couldn't escape his most famous case. For one thing, his students remembered.
From time to time, someone would come up to me and say, are you the Mike Guarino that prosecuted Jello Biafra? What were you thinking? And students were amazed that this person that they thought they knew had been involved in this thing. I think they were kind of hoping I'd say that was a different Michael Guarino.
And if that wasn't bad enough, his son, for reasons we can only guess at, turned into a huge fan of Jello Biafra, and at home, he was forced to listen to Dead Kennedys music for years.
The old version of Guarino, the one parodied by Jello, has pretty much vanished from the world. Jello has never met the new Guarino and, given the hand that Jello had in defining the old one, we decided it was time for an introduction.
I hear ringing.
Jello Biafra is on the line with me.
How are you?
Did you guys ever get a chance to talk?
I don't think-- I think our only conversation was right after the trial.
When you handed me the album. I remember that.
Yeah, I held up the insert from an extended-play recording by a band called Big Black, called Headache, that had a pathology photo of somebody's head was split open inside, thinking, if you think the Giger painting is offensive, wait till you see this.
Yes, I thought that was really sweet of you to do. I remember--
I think you said, don't be a bad winner. I took that very seriously, and I thought you had a point on that. And then the elevator doors closed. And away I went.
Years ago, Jello heard that Michael regretted the case. And Jello wasn't angry at him anymore. So this became a heart-to-heart conversation pretty quickly.
--and she said, well, I think it was, you probably had a little bit-- maybe more than a little bit-- to do with my changing my mind about what the priorities ought to be at the City Attorney's Office. And I remember that you said in some interview, Jello, that I seemed so pure. I was trying to look out for-- I thought I was looking out for the youth of America. And I knew the exact degree of sarcasm-- Then I think I did a little soul-searching after that trial. So it was all for the good, really.
Well, what I'm getting out of all of this today is Mr. Guarino crediting me with being, long-term, a positive influence on his life. And I never would have guessed that that could have happened. And that makes it all the more worthwhile to keep causing trouble the way I do. I mean it always--
After a few minutes, these two were talking like old war buddies. Then they were just talking. And then it was hard to get a word in edgewise. They reminisced about the trial.
--I mean at the time, you came across quite zealous.
Is that a compliment?
They cleared up a few nagging questions.
Why was it necessary for Detective Carter to lie on the witness stand about a point that didn't really even matter?
They talked politics-- Al Gore, 2000 elections.
Yeah, he did win.
He did win. Yeah.
Let me get us back to our subject.
He didn't even question--
These two guys, who were at war for a year and a half, were actually bonding. Politically, they were on the same page. And it was a page where you don't find a lot of Americans these days.
And I'm hoping that they'll see the similarities between Bush and Mussolini, frankly, because--
Well, the one who's the most like Mussolini is Schwarzenegger.
Can I interrupt you and just say it's kind of hard to imagine that you guys ever were adversaries.
I have a good feeling about Jello. I don't think you can fake fondness. And I know I can't. If I'm not fond of somebody, people can tell it pretty fast.
But I'm fond of Jello. I think he's a good guy.
Jello? Would you like to share?
Well, thank you. I don't know what else to say on that. I think I said earlier, I forgave Mr. Guarino a long time ago for his role in the original prosecution. And I've learned over the years that people do change. And sometimes it can be very interesting to get to know people who in earlier times may have tormented you.
They talked for over an hour. By the end, these two were exchanging phone numbers. They were planning to go to dinner together, along with Guarino's son.
My son is probably one of your biggest fans.
How old is he now?
Yeah, he's 22 years old. And he would play your stuff so loud that half the block could hear it.
I think I did that with The Stooges, when I was a kid.
Well, he was just a huge fan.
When you know your enemy and your enemy knows you, it's sometimes hard to stay enemies. And yes, the ill-fated prosecution of Jello Biafra will probably make it into Michael Guarino's obituary, if it's not actually in the headline. But at this point, Guarino can't be bothered to care that much. The people who know him know he's changed, and most important, his adversary knows he's changed. To put this in sheep terms, the lamb can lie down with the lion if the lion has turned himself into a lamb. Or put another way-- one that doesn't appear in the Bible-- maybe you can un-[BEEP] a sheep. It just takes longer for word of that to get around.
When he's not here on the radio trying to get predators and prey to sit down together and make nice, David Segal is a reporter for the Washington Post.
[MUSIC - "I FOUGHT THE LAW," DEAD KENNEDYS]
Act Three: Eight Percent Of Nothing
Act Three, Eight Percent of Nothing. Well we end our program today with a story about what it means to know your enemy in a more domestic setting, namely within a marriage. The story is by Etgar Keret, read for us by Matt Malloy.
Benny Brokerage had been waiting for them in the doorway for almost half an hour. And when they arrived he tried to act as if it didn't make him mad.
"It's all her fault," the old man sniggered, and held out his hand for a firm, no-nonsense shake.
"Don't believe Butchie," the peroxide urged him. She looked at least 15 years younger than her man. "We got here earlier, except we couldn't find any parking." And Benny Brokerage gave her his foxy smile, like he really gave a damn why she and Butchie were late.
He showed them the apartment, which was almost completely furnished with a high ceiling and a kitchen window that almost gave you a view of the sea. He had barely gotten through half the usual round when Butchie pulled out his checkbook and said he'd take it, and that he was even OK with paying a year's rent upfront, except that he wanted a bit off the top, just to feel like he wasn't being taken for a ride. Benny Brokerage explained that the owner was living abroad, so he wasn't at liberty to lower the price. Butchie insisted it was small change.
"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "you can take it off your commission. What's your cut?"
"Eight," Benny Brokerage said after a moment's pause, preferring not to risk a lie.
"So you'll still be left with five," Butchie announced, and finished writing out the check. When he saw that the broker wasn't holding out his hand to take it, he added, "Look at it this way. The market's in the cellar. And 5% of something's a lot more than 8% of nothing."
Butchie, or Tuvia Minster, which was the name that appeared on the check, said the peroxide would drop by the next morning to pick up an extra key. Benny Brokerage said, no problem, except that it had to be before 11:00, because he had some appointments after that. The next day, she didn't show. It was 11:20 already, and Benny Brokerage, who was aching to leave but didn't really want to stand her up, pulled the check out of the drawer. It had the office phone numbers, but he preferred to avoid another tedious conversation with Butchie and went for the home number instead.
It wasn't until she answered that he remembered that he didn't even know her name, so he opted for Mrs. Minster. She somehow sounded a little less dumb on the phone, but she still couldn't remember who he was or that they'd made an appointment for that morning.
Benny Brokerage kept his cool and reminded her slowly-- the way you do when you're talking to a child-- how he had met with her and her husband the day before and how they had signed for the apartment. There was no response at the other end. And when she finally asked him to describe what she looked like, he realized he'd really blown it.
"The truth is," he crooned, "that I must have the wrong number. What did you say your husband's name is? That's it, then. I was looking for Nissim and Dalia. Those 411 people messed me up again. I'm really sorry. Goodbye." And he slammed the receiver down before she had a chance to answer.
The peroxide arrived at the office 15 minutes later, eyes at half-mast and a face that hadn't been washed yet. "I'm sorry," she yawned. "It took me a half an hour to find a cab."
The following morning, when he arrived at the office, there was a woman waiting outside on the sidewalk. She looked about 40, and something about the way she was dressed, about her fragrance, was so not-from-around-here that when he spoke, he instinctively went for his most genteel pronunciation. It turned out she was looking for a two or three room place. She'd prefer to buy. But she didn't rule out a rental as long as it was available right away.
Benny Brokerage said he did happen to have a few nice apartments for sale, and that because the market was in a slump, they would be reasonably priced, too. He asked her how she'd found him, and she said she had looked in the Yellow Pages.
"Are you Benny?" she asked.
He said no, that there hadn't been a Benny for ages. "I kept the name in order not to lose the good will. I'm Michael." He smiled. "The truth is, when I'm on the job even I forget sometimes."
"I'm Leah." The woman smiled back. "Leah Minster. We spoke on the phone yesterday."
"This is a little uncomfortable," Leah Minster said all of a sudden, out of nowhere. The first apartment had been too dark. And they were walking through the second one. Benny Brokerage tried to play dumb, and started talking about how simple it would be to renovate and stuff like that, as if she'd been referring to the apartment. "After you phoned me," Leah Minster ignored his reply, "I tried to talk it over with him. At first he lied, but then he got tired of it and confessed. That's what the apartment is for. I'm leaving him."
Benny Brokerage continued showing her around, thinking to himself that it was none of his business, that there was no reason for him to get uptight. "Is she young?" Leah Minster persisted. And he nodded and said, "She's not nearly as pretty as you. I hate having to say a thing like this about a client, but he's an idiot."
The third apartment had better light. And when he showed her the view of the park from the bedroom window, he felt her moving closer-- not touching him exactly, but close enough. And even though she liked the apartment, she wanted him to show her another one.
In the car, she kept asking him all sorts of questions about the peroxide. And Benny Brokerage tried to put her down but stay kind of vague at the same time. He didn't really feel comfortable with it, but he went on because he saw it was making her happy.
Whenever they stopped talking, there was a kind of tension, especially at the stoplights. And somehow he couldn't think of anything to say the way he usually could, a little story that would take their minds off of being stuck. All he could do was stare at the traffic light and wait for it to change.
At one of the intersections, even when the light changed, the car in front of them, a Mercedes, didn't move. Benny Brokerage slammed the horn twice and cursed the driver through the window. And when the guy in the Mercedes didn't seem to give a damn, he stormed out of the car. Turned out, there was nobody to pick a fight with, though, because the driver, who seemed at first to be dozing, didn't wake up even when Benny Brokerage nudged him.
Then the ambulance crew arrived and said it was a stroke. They searched the driver's pockets and the car, but they couldn't find any ID. And Benny Brokerage felt kind of rotten for cursing the guy without a name, and he was sorry for the mean things he had said about the peroxide too, even though that really had nothing to do with it.
Leah Minster sat beside him in the car looking pale. He drove her back to the office and made them both some coffee. "The truth is that I didn't tell him anything," she said, and took a sip of the instant. "I was lying, actually, just so you'd tell me about her. I'm sorry, but I just had to find out."
Benny Brokerage smiled and told himself and her that there was no harm done, really, that all they had done was see a couple of apartments and some poor guy who'd dropped dead. She finished her coffee, said sorry again, and left. And Michael, who still had a few sips to go, looked around his office, a two-by-three cubicle with a window overlooking the main drag. Suddenly the place seemed so small and transparent, like the ant colony he got for his bar mitzvah a million years ago. And all the good will he had boasted about so solemnly just two hours earlier also sounded like crap. Lately it had begun bothering him that people called him Benny.
Matt Malloy, reading a short story by Etgar Keret which will be published here next year in a collection called The Nimrod Flipout from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Etgar Keret is also the author of the book, The Bus Driver Who Thought That He Was God.
Our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Sarah Koenig and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Kevin Clark.
Stephen Dubner's book, where we first learned about Stetson Kennedy and Superman, is called Freakonomics. It comes out in June.
Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our shows for absolutely free. Or you know you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife. They have public radio programs, best-selling books, even the New York Times, all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our program by Torey Malatia, who has a message today for everyone.
What this country needs is a good Klux-ing.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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