coming to a security theatre near you

US security agents indulge in street theatre, frequently accidentally involving members of the public:

As a presidential limousine rolls closer, an instructor cues, “How about a little homicide bomb?” Bracaglia throws himself at the limousine and detonates…..Mike “The Horse” Dutch, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 280 pounds, has been playing villains for five years. He’s been hit by so many training bullets that he has “black-and-blue dots all over . . . the size of a dime.” When Dutch sunbathes at the beach, people stare, “like I have leprosy.”

“I hate getting shot in the rear end,” says Bill Embrey, who wears shorts under his pants to soften the impact. “I’m stiff, for goodness sakes. When did we have our last ‘force on force?’ “

“Tuesday,” says Dennis O’Toole, his role-playing partner. They ambushed President Obama’s security detail during in-service training, firing simulated AK-47s.

O’Toole rolls up his sleeve, revealing a pocked arm. “Sister Mary Margaret is in these FX [special-effects bullets]. They will help you learn your lesson.”

Embrey and O’Toole play “op-4s,” opposition forces, and “tangos,” terrorists. They specialize in assassinations. Embery’s wife, a kindergarten teacher, describes Embrey’s job as “playing all day.” Some days the men hide out for hours in the woods at a secluded Maryland site, waiting for a motorcade to prey on. Once, after a snowfall, they wore white camouflage and lay so still, O’Toole says, that an agent “stepped on me.”

How many times has he assassinated the president? I suspect he must have some very strange dreams. The bulk of the trainers are out-of-work actors, who volunteer because it beats the usual round of restaurant and bar jobs, but they also include a clinical psychologist who specialises in portraying the maniacs of today. Since the Reagan administration, he’s changed the style but not the content.

When Spodak first played a character named Jeffrey Barry, he was “a mentally ill person, picking up trash and babbling about killing Reagan.” During the 1990s, Jeffrey Barry believed Joan of Arc wanted him to kill Bill Clinton. Today Barry, still mentally ill, wears a Muslim prayer cap, receives messages from the 12th-century sultan Saladin and tells trainees he has incinerated a kitten as “a sacrifice to Allah.”

Characters also change with presidencies. “I just had to dump 18 roles from the Bush administration,” Spodak says.

For Obama, Spodak created a new character, Gideon Caine, a white supremacist who works as a data-entry clerk at Wachovia…

I really, really want to know what the acts whose run in this very special repertory company ended with the Bush years were; wasn’t a Muslim kitten-torcher Cheneyesque enough? You can’t fault the cultural observation, though; where else would a berserk racist teabagger work but at a huge, semi-bankrupt, South Carolinan mortgage lender kept alive by transfusions of public funds?

More to the point, in a real sense, nothing has changed – whatever their props and verbal furnishings, Spodak’s character remains the same, the archetypal crazy gunman. Stephen Sondheim, come to think of it, dedicated a whole drama to the notion that this is a fundamental American character type, and it looks like these guys agree. However, the style is very different. Both highly formalised – motorcade, escorts, crazies – and formless, it can be staged anywhere in the public space, literally shooting holes in the fourth wall and recruiting random civilians into the action. Brecht would approve. Like this:

Five minutes before his job interview, John Fisher parks at Ace Fire Extinguisher Services in College Park, his window open and his stomach jumpy. He is nibbling on spoonfuls of cottage cheese when shouts erupt from the car next to his.

Fisher believes what he is seeing is real.

“Gun! He has a gun!” a man with a Secret Service earpiece yells, riffling through the glove compartment.

Actually, it’s not Fisher who’s pulled a gun, but how long before that happens, and someone who was a spectator a few moments ago gets to become the Crazy Assassin? Until then, of course, the main message the lucky participant/spectators will take away is that they should remain terrified, as David Kilcullen said about airport security. (Come to think of it, that’s another theatrical exercise where you are both a spectator, and also get to play the role of Suspect.)

And this is no surprise; the impresario behind what you might call the Unmarked Gulfstream Ensemble is Military Professional Resources International, Inc, a company better known for hiring ex-servicemen as instructors for armies the US wishes to support.

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