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An Excerpt From My New Novel

 

It is normal to give away a little of one’s life in order not to lose it all.” —Albert Camus

I had been, you know, held in the closet for two months and … abused in all manner of ways. I was very good at doing what I was told.” —Patty Hearst

Chapter One

They took me from my house in the night. Rough hands slapped duct tape over my mouth and I sat up in bed, head swirling with gray shapes and vertigo, wondering if I was dreaming, but before I could yell, before I could reach up and rip off the tape, two hundred pounds of muscle and purpose shoved me back down onto the bed.

My wife was out of town teaching a class in Seattle, and I hadn’t bothered to turn on the alarm system or the motion detector downstairs. I didn’t hear the back door open, nor did our cats alert me that dangerous strangers had entered our home. I kicked with both legs but only flailed against my own sheets and blankets. A mass of hands gripped me, flipped me onto my stomach, and jammed my face into the pillow. I could hardly breathe as steel cuffs slammed around my wrists, the metal digging hard against bone.

For a moment I thought I was being arrested, that police officers had raided the wrong house, that I’d be released soon enough—and with an apology—after they took me down to the station and realized they had the wrong guy.

The moment was fleeting. I will never forget the sound of the voice I heard next: calm, professional, and chillingly void of emotion.

Get the blindfold on him.”

The man who uttered those words, I knew, would gut me as remorselessly as he would crush a beetle under his boot.

Get the blindfold on him.

Quick and certain, with just the slightest touch of impatience.

Get the blindfold on him.

Unaccented American English from a man who couldn’t be over thirty.

Get the blindfold on him.

They tied what felt like a pillowcase over my eyes. It covered everything from my nose to my forehead. No chance I could sneak a peek over the top or under the bottom. Two hands gripped each of my thrashing limbs and hauled me off the bed and down the stairs. I heard what sounded like work boots on hardwood, but their hands on my skin felt soft, not like those of laborers. I managed to fling an arm free and knock a picture frame off the wall, but they restrained me again and dragged me out the back and into the driveway at the side of the house.

A van door slid open. As I struggled to yell through the duct tape, they dumped me onto the van’s grooved metal floor. Two men climbed in with me, each holding one of my arms. The other two hopped in front.

When I heard the ignition turn over, I arched my back and kicked one of the bastards. Either a fist or an elbow—I couldn’t be sure—slammed into my mouth, mashing lips against teeth.

I tasted blood and iron and smelled body odor—theirs—as we hurtled down surface streets, the van’s engine gunning like a getaway car, and merged onto the interstate.

*

My name is Michael Totten, and I work as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. For ten years I feared something like this might happen. It’s a hazard of my profession.

Khaled Sheikh Mohamed kidnapped my colleague Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and beheaded him on camera with a kitchen knife. Murderous drug cartels south of the border have turned Mexico into one of the most dangerous countries on earth to work as a reporter. During the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, Hezbollah kidnapped journalists and chained them to radiators. I’m always taking a risk when I leave the comforts of home to report from the unfortunate parts of the world. I was especially concerned about being snatched off the street during myseven trips to Iraq, but I had no idea I’d ever be yanked out of bed in my hometown in Oregon.

Nobody said anything as we drove. Whoever these guys were, they weren’t talking. I tried to curse them but could only groan into the tape over my mouth. All I could hear was the thrum of the engine and the vibration of the wheels at interstate speed. If I’d been congested and couldn’t breathe through my nose, I would have suffocated.

The van’s floor dug into my back. My wrists ached from the handcuffs, and a muscle in my right shoulder cramped up. I noticed the smell of sweat in the blindfold that covered most of my face and realized it was my own.

After hours had passed, we finally stopped. It felt like four hours, but it must have only been three. Surely my sense of time was distorted. At least I no longer cringed and expected to be punched or elbowed again.

The man in the passenger seat got out and unscrewed the van’s gas cap. I listened carefully. Was anyone else out there? Would a gas-station attendant see or hear me if I kicked and thrashed and made a big enough scene? Did the van even have windows? I imagined it probably didn’t.

But there was no attendant. Nobody asked how much gas or what kind we wanted. I heard the man from the passenger seat swipe a credit card and insert the nozzle into the tank.

We were no longer in Oregon then. Self-service at gas stations is illegal in Oregon. You have to wait for an attendant to fill the tank for you. So at some point in the night, we had crossed into Washington. It had to be Washington. My house in Portland is just a fifteen-minute drive to the state line, but California and Idaho are six hours away. Nevada is eight hours away. Canada is also six hours away, and there was no chance I’d missed an international border crossing.

We left the station and after another hour or so, the van slowed and turned. The tires crunched onto gravel. I braced myself. This was it. Wherever we were going, we had arrived.

The man in the passenger seat climbed out and opened the sliding side door. The scent of pine overwhelmed me at once. We were in a forest, or very near one, and we were on the dry eastern side of the Cascade Mountains rather than the wet western side, where the forests are fir. I figured we must be somewhere in the vicinity of Yakima or possibly Ellensburg, a college town in the middle of the state.

The duct tape over my mouth was ripped away stingingly.

Will you walk?” It was that voice again. The one that said “Get the blindfold on him.”

I’ll walk,” I said, “if you take off the blindfold.”

Get him in the house,” he said, and I felt myself being hoisted by my shoulders, the tops of my bare toes trailing in gravel. “Go ahead and scream if you want. No one will hear you out here.”

A supernova of hatred exploded inside me. If they looked like they were going to kill me, I’d fight them. And if they kept me in cuffs and held down my legs, I’d bite the bastards’ fingers off with my teeth.

*

They took me inside, dragged me into a basement, and sat my ass down in a straight-backed wooden chair no softer than the van floor. They uncuffed one of my wrists and recuffed it to a table leg. I heard heavy booted footsteps heading up wooden stairs toward the main part of the house.

I sat hunched over in absolute silence with my shoulders nearly up to my ears. I figured they’d left me alone, but when I reached up with my one free hand to take off my blindfold, I saw sitting before me a man of about thirty with blue eyes, dark curls, and light brown skin. With a face like that, he could have been from a number of places around the world. Italy, Chile, and Armenia come to mind now, but I knew at the time he was almost certainly an Arab. He could have been from Pakistan or Iran, but I doubted it.

Behind him stood a hairy bear of a man with black eyes, a long black beard, and short-cropped hair. He was the one who had punched me. I could tell. He had an I like to kick the shit out of people look on his face.

Michael,” the blue-eyed man said. “Believe me, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”

I stared at him and tried as hard as I could to show no expression. No anger. No fear. Then I sucked my teeth hard enough to make my split lip bleed again, leaned to the side, and spit blood onto the floor.

Sorry about that,” the man said. “But you were flailing about and kicked Mahmoud here in the ribs.”

The larger man stood with his arms folded and drummed his fingers on his biceps at the sound of his name. I turned and wiped the blood off my lips and onto my shoulder.

My name is Ahmed,” the blue-eyed man said.

Ahmed what?” I said. “What’s your last name?” I’ve spent enough time in the Arab world that I can sometimes tell which country people are from by their last names.

Just Ahmed for now,” he said. “We have a job for you.”

I’m not working for you,” I said. “Shoot me if you want, but I’m not going to help you.”

I honestly didn’t know if I meant that or not. They expected me to resist and they weren’t beating me up, so what was I supposed to say? Sure, okay, I’ll do what you want?

I can understand your reluctance,” Ahmed said, “but you will do what we say.”

I looked at him and said nothing.

We aren’t necessarily going to kill you or even hurt you,” he said. "As long as you do what we say. If you cooperate, we’ll see what happens.”

He could tell by the look on my face that I didn’t buy it.

He sighed. “If I told you we’d let you go if you cooperate, would you believe me?”

No,” I said.

Okay then,” he said. “I didn’t think so. So I won’t insult your intelligence.”

What do you want with me, Ahmed?” I started grinding my teeth. I resisted clenching my hands into fists, but I couldn’t help grinding my teeth.

I appreciate that you’re pronouncing my name correctly,” he said. The h in his name is aspirated. It’s pronounced like the h in house.

Of course I know how to say Ahmed,” I said. “I’ve been working in and writing about the Arab world for ten years.”

Yes,” he said and smiled. “I know. That’s why we picked you.”

Why me?” I said.

I just told you,” he said.

No, I mean why me of all the American journalists who cover the Middle East? Why not kidnap Peter Bergen or Tom Friedman? They’re both more famous than I am.”

Because,” he said and stood up. “You have a widely read blog. And you’re going to give us the password.”

I had a blog at the Web site of The Global Weekly, where I published a weekly column, daily takes on the news of the world, and occasional long dispatches from war zones and trouble spots. I could write whatever I wanted. Unlike traditional journalism, my work was published instantly and unedited with the click of a mouse. If Ahmed had my password, he could hijack my column and publish whatever he wanted himself.

Mahmoud unfolded a four-inch Leatherman knife and flicked his thumb across the blade sideways. It took everything I had, but I resisted.

I’m not giving you the password,” I said and swallowed hard. My hands felt clammy, and it was all I could do to keep myself from shaking.

Cut off his eyelids,” Ahmed said.

Mahmoud grunted and stepped forward, the cords standing out in his neck. I spasmed as though I had just been zapped with a cattle prod.

Okayokayokay,” I said and gave up the password.

That wasn’t so difficult, was it?” Ahmed said. “You will do what we say. And it will be easier on everyone here if you immediately do what we say. Don’t ever say no to me again.”

I tried hard not to breathe too heavily, but it was difficult.

You kidnapped me just to get my blog’s password?” I said.

That’s just for backup,” he said. “For insurance, you might say.”

Against what?” I said.

Insubordination,” he said. “If you don’t do what we say, Mahmoud will cut off your eyelids, take a nice pretty picture, and upload the photograph to your blog. Even your wife and mother will get a good hard look at what’s happening to you.”

*

If you want to read the rest, you'll have to purchase a copy. The book will be released in April, so you can buy a trade paperback or electronic version at that time from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

Winning Hearts and Minds

As I watched the new Chilean film “No,” I kept thinking about how its lessons seem obvious in retrospect, but how illusive common sense often seems in the present. The insight seized upon by director Pablo Larraín is that people are more likely to exert the minimal effort necessary to vote when they have an attractive ideal in mind rather than when they are merely protesting an evil. Of course, this has something to do with voter behavior and the outcome of the last American presidential election. But it also bears a great deal on American foreign policy.

Too often, American pundits and policymakers have expected that a foreign populace will rebel against a regime we cannot but see as evil—the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Iran’s mullahs, or Bashar Assad. And some people do choose to resist, to fight the Taliban or Saddam or the mullocracy, or, now, to sacrifice their lives to oust Assad. But others do not, which often makes any US military effort far bloodier and more costly than it otherwise would be.

The movie “No” suggests a better way.

Belmokhtar Killed in Mali

I'm in Beirut and will have some fresh material shortly, but in the meantime Al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar was reportedly whacked in Mali by Chad.

Good for Chad. Chad needed a win. When was the last time Chad had a win?

And the rest of the world had to be rid of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He was the Al Qaeda-linked gangster terrorist behind the recent hostage drama at a gas plant in Algeria that ended with dozens of innocents dead.

Thanks, Chad.

Citizens Derail Oligarch's Mining Development Plans in Ukraine

Here’s more evidence busting the myth of Ukrainian passivity and indifference.

The residents of Kremenchuk, a city of 230,000 southeast of Kyiv on the Dnipro River, and its environs are up in arms over oligarch Kostyantyn Zhevago’s plans to build the Bilaniv Mining and Enrichment Combine (HZK) on the Psol River in Kremenchuk District. According to Zhevago’s plans (pdf), about 12 villages comprising one fifth of the district’s territory would have to go to make room for the combine.

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Out of Arguments, Pro-Kremlin Voices Smear Opposition

Claims that the Russian pro-democracy opposition is working for the West to undermine Russia’s national interests—and is therefore nothing but a bunch of traitors—are a favorite tune of Kremlin supporters. The absence of any facts to substantiate such claims has never stopped them. In October 2011, the news website Infox.ru published a story with a truly sensational headline: “Kasparov Urges War Against Russia.” Those who read it learned that one of the leaders of Russia’s opposition, while speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, urged the West to “act against Russia … from the position of strength” and “reminded [the audience] of the ‘successful’ experience of democracy-building by military intervention in countries of the Middle East and Africa.” “Judging by this experience,” the story continued, “the most effective way to install democratic procedures is by ‘humanitarian’ bombing.”

Mapping North Korea’s Brutal Labor Camps

By Courtney Brooks
Guest Blogger

North Korean refugee Dong-hyuk Shin was born a prisoner. He lived in the notoriously brutal gulag Camp 14 for more than 20 years, and is the only known escapee of what’s known as one of the regime’s “total control zones.” He told the United Nations’ Geneva Summit For Human Rights and Democracy on Tuesday that he was so brainwashed he even informed authorities of his family members’ escape plans, leading to their death—and then was forced to watch their executions.

Read full article here.

My New Book is Available for Pre-order

You can now pre-order autographed copies of my new book, Taken, which is my first novel. The book will be published in April. If you order from me directly, you'll receive a signed copy in March before it's available anywhere else.

Here are the front and back covers:

 

 

Here's the book description: Prize-winning author and journalist Michael J. Totten’s debut novel features a fictional version of author and journalist Michael J. Totten who is taken from his home in the night by terrorists and hauled bound and gagged to a remote house in the wilderness. So begins a harrowing journey across three states with a ruthless band of killers and sadists, and after all escape attempts fail, Totten faces a terrible question: what if the only way out is to join them?

 

Most of you don't know this, but I was a fiction writer long before I became a journalist. I'm a product of the English Department, not Journalism School, and I spent my entire early adulthood developing and honing skills as a short story writer and novelist. I expect that a few years from now I'll have more novels than non-fiction books published, but for now, this is my first.

UPDATE: Orders are now closed. The book will be released in April, so you can buy a trade paperback or electronic version at that time from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

Berlusconi’s Four Billion-Euro Bid for Reelection

What’s better than offering your compatriots a chicken in every pot?

Silvio Berlusconi’s most recent promises. There’s almost nothing Berlusconi won’t offer the electorate this time around. For example: If elected as Italy’s prime minister (yet again…), Silvio, who happens to be very rich and tax-averse, said, “I will take four billion euros of my own fortune and give it to Italians.” That’s the amount Berlusconi believes his countrymen had to pay in stiff new property taxes last year.

Berlusconi uttered his personal tax refund declaration on television, and since he rose long ago from shipboard crooner to media magnate and now owns almost all Italian networks, you can bet word got around. Especially since Berlusconi also promised (surprise!!) a pardon for all tax evaders. There were many, many reasons for this assurance to the electorate, the prime one being that Berlusconi himself makes a habit of cheating the taxman. In fact he was convicted of it. So if he gets elected, he can pardon himself, among many, many others.

Rice Production Records Set with New Method

Is there is a “rice revolution” in India’s poorest state, Bihar? Sumant Kumar claims to have shattered the world’s record for output of the staple.

Kumar, from the village of Darveshpura in the district of Nalanda, usually harvested four to five tons per hectare. In 2011, each stalk was heavier and each grain bigger. The result? The shy young man had grown 22.4 tons on a hectare. That topped the record of 19.4 tons held by China’s Yuan Longping, the elderly agronomist known as the “father of rice.”

And Kumar was not alone in attaining agricultural glory. Nitish Kumar, a friend of the rice king, broke the world’s record for potatoes by harvesting 72.9 tons per hectare last March. His mark, however, was surpassed a few months later when Rakesh Kumar, from another Nalanda village, grew 108.8 tons. Ravindra Kumar, from a nearby field, took India’s record for wheat. 

The Correlation the US Military Won’t Trumpet

Yes, it’s that time of year again—time for the annual UN report on Afghan civilian casualties. Since the compilations were first released in 2007, they’ve been the occasion for ridiculous mea culpas from peaceniks horrified that any civilians actually get killed by accident in a war, for jeremiads from hard lefties charging that our troops go around whacking Afghans civilians willy nilly, and for ridiculous bombast from conservatives arguing that if we just increased the number of troops in Afghanistan we would be better able to “protect” civilians.

Russian Blogger's Investigation Forces Senior MP's Resignation

On Wednesday morning, Vladimir Pekhtin, one of the most senior and longest-serving members of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in the State Duma, took to the floor to announce his resignation because of “controversial documents published on the Internet.” He did not mention Alexei Navalny by name, but it was indeed Russia’s leading anticorruption blogger who forced the Putin loyalist out of politics. Last week, Navalny published documents showing Pekhtin’s (undeclared) ownership of more than $2 million worth of luxury real estate in Miami Beach, Florida.

Fixing Ukraine’s Villages One House at a Time

If you’ve ever been to Ukraine’s countryside, you may have noticed that many villages look like holdouts from the late nineteenth century. Dirt roads are the norm, water frequently has to be hauled from wells, and outhouses abound.

Don’t blame the villagers for that. Put the blame squarely on Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party. Collectivization destroyed Soviet agriculture, while the forced starvation of 1932–1933, known as the Holodomor, destroyed the Ukrainian peasantry. Nazi occupation policies during World War II only made things worse, while continued Soviet neglect of agriculture condemned the peasants to a nether existence up to the end of the Soviet Union. Collective farmers had a third-class status that some analysts even compared to modern-day serfdom.

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This is No Way to Behave

The British parliament’s national embarrasment George Galloway (MP-Gaza) belatedly discovered in front of a live audience at Oxford that his debate opponent is an Israeli citizen, so he stormed out in a bigoted huff. Watch the video. It’s really something.

I suppose he’ll get “resistance” points in some circles for his theatrics, but Mahmood Naji, who organized the debate, condemned Galloway for his boorish behavior. I should also add that I learned of this video from a Muslim friend of mine who sent me the link with the words "George Galloway -- massive racist" in the subject line.

Debating Atheism in the Heart of Cairo

Like many men in predominantly Muslim Egypt, Mohamed Abdelfattah was named after Islam’s most famous prophet. But he thinks the faith represented by his namesake is being challenged like never before in modern Egyptian society. While the world warily watches the country’s new Muslim Brotherhood president, also named Mohamed, this young journalist thinks everyone’s missing the real story: Egypt’s seismic search for meaning.

Abdelfattah makes his case by way of a recent debate headlined “Atheism and how atheists think” that was held—of all places—at an old Cairo mosque.

During the event, one 18-year-old Egyptian high school student proclaimed: “As an atheist, I believe that faith is against our very humanity and the source of warfare and bloodshed.” That’s a bold statement in Egypt, and certainly a bold thing to say to a mostly Muslim audience. Indeed, Abdelfattah said it was the first time he’d seen a public meeting on the subject of atheism, which had been considered, he said, “sensitive and taboo” before the opening up of society heralded by the ousting of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

China: US to Blame for North Korea’s Provocations

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launches three-stage ballistic missiles, tests nuclear weapons, and sells just about everything in its increasingly destructive arsenal to other dangerous regimes.

Who is to blame for Pyongyang’s behavior? Recent pieces in Chinese state media, in an apparent attempt to deflect criticism from Beijing, contain a surprising answer.

“At a superficial level, it was Pyongyang that has repeatedly breached UN resolutions and used its nuclear program as a weapon to challenge the world community, which was considered to be unwise and regrettable,” states a Xinhua News Agency commentary titled “Time to Address Root Causes of Nuclear Crisis on Korean Peninsula.” “In reality, the DPRK’s defiance was deeply rooted in its strong sense of insecurity after years of confrontation with South Korea, Japan, and a militarily more superior United States.”

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