In 1993 I was in Cambodia at a meeting of the Asian Committee for Housing Rights when I received a strange call from my wife Alice. The connection was poor, so her message came across in bursts of words and long silences: “You are going to be shot… The US Embassy called me… Come right home.” I guessed correctly that people at the embassy had given her that bizarre piece of news.
“I’m going to call Father Tom,” she added, referring to Fr. Tom Steinbugler, my old friend in both our good times and bad times.
They met me at the Manila International Airport. A day later we stood outside the old US Embassy building where the ambassador and the political officers worked. When we told the Marine guard whom we wanted to see (a certain political officer), he looked us over, then led us through several heavy doors to an office at the end of the corridor. There was no one there.
The morning sun poured in. The three of us sat around the lone desk and waited. This was the CIA, I thought; I had read enough spy novels to know that CIA spies are assigned to the political sections of the embassies as their cover.
At last our man came in. He seemed well over six feet tall, and was built like a New York Giant football linebacker.
We introduced ourselves and when he heard that Father Tom was a priest, he began recalling his days at Georgetown University in Washington and its great basketball teams and players—Patrick Ewing, Alan Iverson and Alonso Mourning. I was forgotten. When they stopped talking, the CIA man looked at me. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and, like a doctor delivering bad news, told me: “Mr. Murphy, we want you to know they’re very good and if they want you, they’ll get you.”
“Who?” I asked.
“They’re good,” the CIA man said. “That’s all you have to know. We have information that a group we keep our eye on wants to take care of you. I am going to give you some pamphlets in the exercise at hand, evading assassination, but I can boil it down to few main items. Ready?”
I motioned to Father Tom to keep track of what was said.
“One,” the CIA man said, “use a different car every day. Get one that is neutral in color, quick-starting, with terrific pickup. Once you get in, go like hell and don’t stop for anything, even an old woman in the middle of the road; she may be the enemy.”
I waited for more, but that was it. I was to come back in a week, if I was still around.
We had only one car, and it was flaming red in color. It was put together in Cavite with a motor from Japan. It was hardly reliable, and as noisy as any old jeepney. The bad guys would be able to hear me coming and see me clearly from a long way off. And where can you “go like hell” in Manila?
“Remember, Mr. Murphy, they’re good,” the CIA man repeated. I could tell whom he would bet on to survive. When we stood up, I heard him mutter, “Sorry for your troubles, Mr. Murphy”—the old Irish words of consolation spoken at funerals.
In the next few weeks my wife and I went to the offices of friends high up in government to ask for their help. These were the experts on the Philippine side. They seemed more concerned personally than the man in the US Embassy, but their suggestions were of little more worth. One official even said he thought it was an embassy plan.
Finally, we decided to see the leader of one of the most militant underground groups. When I told this leader my problem, he said: “Why would I want to kill you?” That was the final put-down. I began to ask myself: Was I being mistaken for someone else? Would I be killed by mistake?
Then the leader told me that he had watched our work among the Sama-Sama urban poor people in the National Government Center in Quezon City. “We are watching you,” he said. “If we can accept your education program, we will let you continue. If we are not satisfied, we will take over. By next year we will have 200,000 poor people in the streets shouting for change. Be sure you are with us.”
Here was another expert; however, his calculation about the poor people’s response to his program was wildly inaccurate. Nothing happened a year later in the streets of Quezon City.
In the end, nothing happened to me. I never found out any more about the informer. The whole matter faded away.
I learned many things about experts during the month Alice, Father Tom and I spent among the spies, militants and government officials. I learned these men and women had decided, consciously or not, that the concrete facts on the ground were no longer important, that they already knew the answers to questions. The CIA man obviously knew nothing about traffic in Manila. The militant leader no longer knew the poor he worked to help. The officials had answers on all problems that might be presented, but without a firm grasp of reality their opinions were worthless.
It is worse if bias and prejudice have replaced concrete data—for example, bias against the urban poor. People change, times change. We must keep in close touch with reality.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).