Guestwords: N.S.A. and a Brotherly Plea

By Dan Marsh
James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence

    Let us say that my brother is married to a woman from Yemen. Let us say that they are good people (whatever you think that means). Let us say that she and my brother have become estranged, but share custody of their children. Let us say that they are good parents. Let us say that their son learned Latin at Boston College, their daughter Arabic at the University of Maryland. Let us say my sister-in-law once worked as an actuary for the I.R.S.
    She worked after that for Morton-Thiokol, as the company was then named, in Utah. The company produced table salt for the American family and rocket propulsion systems for the U.S. military. I never knew which division she was in. Did she have a finger in my spice shelf, or a hand in government missile projects about which she could not tell me one word?
    She has extended family and friends in Yemen. There have been many calls from that country to this and this country to that over many years. There have been calls to government officials about obtaining student visas. There have been calls to artists about painting urban vistas. There have been calls cousin to cousin, nephew to aunt. There have been thousands of e-mails, e-mails with photos of babies, e-mails with photos of women in burqas, photos of men with guns, out in the woods of the Adirondacks in New York, looking for turkeys. And other men in other countries with guns.
    Both my brother and sister-in-law live in Utah near the former Thiokol headquarters. When I moved to Maryland I swear I did not know that Thiokol had a thriving plant in Elkton, a bottle-rocket’s flight from my new house. I swear it. I did not know.
    I call my brother on the telephone on a weekly basis. (We both have health issues.) He is an important figure in his community, an attorney. I have been described as a ne’er-do-well painter or poet. But we both know the telephone country-code for Yemen. We know it by heart.
    Let us say there is a knock on my door when I am home alone, painting.
    Let us say I have sent my brother a JPEG of “Three Paintings Against Three Wars” on the Internet. That once when pissed my e-mail to him said that Dick Cheney was an evil bastard. (I wrote that then in caps to make sure he got the point.) Suddenly I remember sending my brother an e-mail denying that Americans walked on the moon. It was Kubrick, or Spielberg, I wrote, using aliens in Arizona. Look at Armstrong’s picture of Aldrin with the American flag beside him. Look at “Whistler’s Mother.” If the moon shot wasn’t composed by an artist, why if you lay one picture over another is there white on white, gray on gray, black on black?
    Let us say that though I have a wife and adult daughter I am told I may make only one telephone call.
    Let us say I love this country of my birth.
    Brother, can I call you? Did I have the wrong sister-in-law? Or the wrong big brother? Why are they doing this?
    Man, will you save me? I’m calling you now. Calling on you now. Please answer. Please.


    Dan Marsh, a native Long Islander, is a previous “Guestwords” contributor. He writes from Garrett Park, Md.