Category Archives: Ulacia

Being Gay in Rural Colombia Ain’t Easy

This article was originally published on VICE Colombia.

"To the dance floor, please!" the soldier told Gustavo.*

It was a rather strange request—the bar was empty; the woman tending it was doing math on a notepad while biting her pen. Gustavo had arrived early to reserve a good table for his friends.

The bar was in a small village in Colombia's Antioquia Province. While the village itself is very spread out—as big as two football stadiums combined—the town center, where the bar was located, is no bigger than six blocks long and two blocks wide. The total population is less than 2,500. Gustavo tells me now that it was normal to become a regular at the only nightclub; in the main square, there are only two taverns, where old men go to play pool.

The soldier was a "manly man" merely out drinking, Gustavo says, with no gun on him and no superiors present. Encouraged by the fictitious power of his uniform, he asked Gustavo, one of the most visible and publicly known gay guys in town, to accompany him out on the dance floor.

At first, it seemed like a fantasy. In a small Colombian village like this, every family has a gay member, many of whom have their first escapades while still in the closet. The soldier could merely be exploring.

"Get on the dance floor," he continued. "I have to search you, faggot."

All fantasy evaporated when he used that word, with that tone. Gustavo tells me that the soldier asked him to turn around and spread his legs. He started frisking him—Gustavo, who was at the nightclub so frequently that he'd basically become part of the furniture. The woman behind the bar knew something was off, but she couldn't see clearly between the curtains that separated the tables and the dance floor. The soldier's request turned into an order after Gustavo asked why he was being searched. "This faggot!" he replied, as he began patting him down angrily.

"I became very nervous," Gustavo says. We're sipping on rum in a café in front of the village's only church, just across the street from where it all happened. "Obviously I had to let him do it, and that's the hardest part. I felt powerless. I couldn't go home and talk about it—I just had to lay low after and remain silent."

"That son of a bitch!" he continues. "When men do that, it's because…"

He doesn't know how to finish that sentence. If heterosexual men say they don't understand women, then we gay men really don't know what to say about straight men in Colombia—with their wanton violence, rough games, football, boxing, locker rooms, and drunken nights, often with a fondling hand under the table.

"They end up giving in," he says, as the ears of people sitting nearby perk up.

I'm in my father's hometown for Easter; the rest of the village is out commemorating Jesus's crucifixion at mass. But as a gay urbanite, I wanted to know what it was like to be gay and out in a tiny village—so I'm chatting with Gustavo.

"They have a bit of liquor and they get uninhibited," Gustavo continues. "Then they start to break, and start looking for you. At the beginning of the party they get distracted and forget, but late at night, they ask you where to go."

These "straight" men, under cover of alcohol, aren't always so straight. "And we have to sneak into the alleyways," he says. "We have to run and get muddy, and then I come home a complete mess."

Gustavo says that once, many years ago, he hooked up with the owner of the same bar where he was frisked. Gustavo is 40 now, but he was quite young when the owner started hitting on him.

"I would come [to the bar], buy something, and he would touch my hand. He was really nice to me, and I've always liked older guys," Gustavo says. "One day—I don't remember how—he dragged me [outside] and we made out. I said to myself, I need to make this happen.' Then, another day, his wife wasn't home and I went [back] with him. Afterwards, he pretended he didn't know me. Sometimes I would stay out until really late hoping it would happen again."

"Did his wife find out?" I ask.

"Not with me, but she did with others," he says. "I ended up befriending her, but only after he got involved with another young guy here. I got really angry, because she cried and felt really bad. She told me, if it had been a woman—but a man… and such a young guy…"

"Apparently he and the young guy were in love, and it became very public here," he says. "So they got a divorce and she left. He stayed in town, but the pressure was difficult, and eventually he also had to leave after [living] here his entire life. It's the gossip, the looks from ladies in the town, the priest… all of that matters."

Gossip is something we gay Colombian men have to carry with us throughout our entire lives. It stabs you every time someone makes a little joke or laughs in your direction. That's why, in order to fuck in peace, there's sometimes no alternative beyond going into the woods, where nobody can watch, listen or judge. There are no moral prejudices in the woods. The Colombian countryside—while at times a hostile, lonely place for a gay man—can also make for quite a nice, open field to gay it up.

When he was younger, Gustavo remembers, he and his classmates would take school field trips to swim in the river, where guys had circle jerk sessions and fondled each other underwater.

"Sometimes you don't see them as being macho, since they allow so much to happen," he says. "That happens a lot in these small towns, where all the boys play rough games like football and tease you because you don't have the skills to play or because of your mannerisms. That's when I thought— when I finish school here, I'll leave in search of a new world and other things."

When he was 19, Gustavo went to study at a technical school in Medellín, Colombia's second largest city. Heading there from the mountains of Antioquia was like moving from rural Arkansas to San Francisco. He went out to the gay dive bars downtown—"Underwear Street," as it's known to locals, for its racy window displays—and he was actually scared. Gustavo, who stuck to drinking, saw people snorting coke and smoking weed there, and felt it was a lot to handle.

"Every weekend we would go to a new place, and I had such a small town mentality. A whole new world opened up for me in Medellín," Gustavo says. "I wouldn't drink that much because I was too busy observing. I'd never seen men kiss or dance together before. It took a long time before I could dance with another guy. I took it slow, and I was careful. But yes, what many of us want is to go wild in the city."

Gustavo has since left Medellín; he now manages businesses in other small towns, and only returns to Antioquia to visit, where he'll hang out with former girlfriends and other friends. He says some ladies in town have given him a bad reputation, accusing him of being a pervert, partying too much. He believes there issue is that he's a proud gay man, rather than some closeted sodomite who winds up married with children.

Right before we finish our last glass of rum, I ask him what it was like to be a gay man in a small town. He says it depends—it's one thing to be closeted and another to be a gay man who left, succeeded, and made money. Just like one of his friends who moved to Europe. Every time they visit, they team up and take over the town.

"The first time he came he just flaunted his money and his sexuality," Gustavo says. "Every guy who got in his car threw themselves at us. And I told him, 'My God, I thought everyone in this town was straight—what I didn't have was money.'"

"If people in this town see that you have nothing, they'll just look at you like any other fag—let's be clear about that," he continues. "But if they introduce you as the mayor's cousin, the director of a company or something like that… their faces start to change, they tell you sit here, let me get you a drink. First people notice our sexuality, but when they know you're successful, they'll even ask for your number. The change is obvious."

*Gustavo's name, as well as identifying details of the town have been changed to protect his privacy.

I Tattooed Chelsea Clinton’s Face on My Body and I Regret Nothing

Chelsea Clinton isn't the internet's favorite person. She's become more politically outspoken on Twitter, leading to rumors swirling about her running for office—and though she's denied those rumors, that hasn't stopped people from all over the political spectrum registering their distaste at that prospect. Vanity Fair recently published the rather brutal "Please, God, Stop Chelsea Clinton from Whatever She's Doing," while a columnist for the New York Post penned an op-ed with the headline, "God help us if Chelsea Clinton runs for office."

As I've previously explored, Chelsea Clinton does have a rabid (if small) fan base. But none of them compare to Justin Smith, a 34-year-old retail manager from Charleston, South Carolina, who has not one, but two Clinton-themed tattoos: a portrait of Hillary and another of Chelsea.

Smith doesn't have a specific reason for getting two Clintons inked onto his skin. When I spoke to him over the phone about it, he seemed exceedingly casual about the shrine to the Clinton family forever etched into his skin. "I've been a supporter of the Clintons since I was ten years old, going back to 1992, '93, actually before Bill took office," he told me. "I'm just a long-time supporter of them. They've been my heroes for well over 20 years." While his enthusiasm of the Clintons seems to go beyond just politics—stanning doesn't necessarily have to have a rhyme or reason—he told me he appreciates the whole Clinton family because he "saw at a young age that they care deeply about human rights," specifically their support of the LGBT community (he's been openly bisexual since he was 14). "That's the biggest thing," Smith explained. "Their longtime commitment to fighting for human rights."

The same tattoo artist inked both of the portraits. "He's an apolitical guy, but he thought it was cool," Smith explained. "It was the first tattoos of them that he's done. I think it might be the only Chelsea tattoo in existence."

Images courtesy of Justin Smith

He's met all three members of the Clinton clan, and according to Smith both Hillary and Chelsea "absolutely loved" his Hillary tattoo. (He just recently got Chelsea.) "It was one of the best moments of my life," he said, laughing nervously.

When he met Bill, he "got so nervous" that he forgot to show off his Hillary tat. "Pretty sure Hillary showed him a picture of it, though," Smith told me.

Smith said he's hopes to get a Bill tattoo to complete the trilogy ("might as well get 'em all, right?" he said) but for now he only has portraits of Hillary, Chelsea, and, uh, Howard Stern. "I'm a fan and longtime supporter of him" he told me. "Howard is a longtime Hillary supporter, too, by the way."

Image courtesy of Justin Smith

Chelsea has yet to see his latest token of devotion to her, but he's experienced a lot of backlash for the tattoo on social media, though none in real life. "I hope to show it to her sometime soon," Smith said. "I've been getting a lot of hate on social media recently, from people on the far right and the far left."

Unsurprisingly, if the young Clinton wanted to get fully into politics, Smith said he would support her "100 percent."

"I hope she runs for office," he said. "The backlash is really disheartening to see. She's such a caring, compassionate person. I just don't understand where all the hate is coming from."

Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.

Every US President Cozies Up to Dictators

On Saturday, during a "friendly" phone call about North Korea, Donald Trump invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, a moved that stunned even Trump's own administration. Since Duterte won the election last year he has become known mostly for his monstrous war on drugs, which has led to death squads reportedly killing thousands of people accused of being drug dealers or users. Duterte claims to have personally shot three men to death while cruising around on a motorcycle "looking for trouble." Oh, and Duterte has also compared himself to Hitler.

Trump has naturally come under fire for being on such friendly terms with Duterte. John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told the New York Times that "by essentially endorsing Duterte's murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings." CNN's Jake Tapper pointed to Trump's fondness for Duterte and other dictators and said, "Equating brutality and despotism with leadership, that's not an American value."

But befriending dictators kind of is an American value. Though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just made headlines for saying that the US wouldn't worry about "values" when making alliances for the purpose of national security, America has been picking its allies based on geopolitical strategy rather than morality for a long, long time. While Trump's open praise for dictators is unusual and disconcerting, from a foreign policy perspective, being nice to autocrats is one of the more normal things Trump has done as president.

In case you need it, here's a refresher on unlikely friendships from recent presidential history:

George W. Bush and Saudi Prince Abdullah

Those of you who remember Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 will recall the footage of George W. Bush holding hands with Saudi Prince Abdullah and strolling through the White House garden. If Moore used that clip as an attempt to tie Bush to the Saudi Bin Laden family it doesn't work, but it is true that the Bush White House—among other administrations—tacitly approved of a regime that at the time was cracking down on women's rights and lopping off a lot of people's heads with swords. Abdullah himself later became king, in which capacity he oversaw the suppression of public protests and had at least one of his critics publicly flogged.

Lyndon Johnson and Brazilian President Artur da Costa e Silva

In the 60s, President Lyndon Johnson really didn't want Brazil, the biggest country in South America, to turn communist, so the CIA helped replace Brazil's leftist leadership with a military government by way of a coup. According to Human Rights Watch, that repressive regime arrested 50,000 people in its first months alone. When he was elected president three years later, Artur da Costa e Silva, one of the coup's leaders, visited the White House in 1967. Johnson proposed a toast to him during a luncheon: "Sir, we welcome you to this Capital and to this house. Know that as geography has made us neighbors, history and hope have made us friends."

John F. Kennedy and South Korea's Park Chung-Hee

One of South Korea's many cruel dictators was Park Chung-Hee (incidentally, the father of the recently ousted President Park Geun-hye). Park seized power by leading a military junta that purged the government of opposition, and then declared that junta members wouldn't run for president, but ran anyway. Park was so notoriously brutal that he was reportedly gearing up to slaughter over 100,000 protesters when his own intelligence chief intervened and shot him to death. Not that any of this made him an enemy of the US. President John F. Kennedy's statement about their meeting in 1961 said, "The President welcomed Chairman Park's full exposition of the current situation in the Republic of Korea and expressed his gratification at the many indications of progress made by the new Government of the Republic."

Ronald Reagan and Indonesia's Suharto

Suharto was president of Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, during which time he encouraged numerous bloodthirsty communist-hunting death squads that slaughtered 500,000 people and put 750,000 in concentration camps. Machete-wielding death squad leaders received high-level posts in Indonesia's government that they hold to this day. In 1982, Ronald Reagan invited Suharto to Washington, DC for a state visit. The president toasted his guest at dinner, praising Suharto for his "wise and steadfast leadership." Reagan then got even more effusive, saying, "You will pardon me I hope, Mr. President, if I recognize here tonight what is already apparent to the nations of the world—that Indonesia, under your leadership, has assumed its rightful position as a great nation of Asia and of the world."

Barack Obama and a Bunch of People

The US habit of cozying up to oppressive regimes isn't limited to Republican presidents or a relic of the distant past. During his time as prime minister of Ethiopia, the late Meles Zenawi oversaw crackdowns on Islam and press freedom as well the deadly suppression of widespread protests against election fraud. In 2012, Meles attended an anti-poverty summit for African leaders and received a shout-out from the podium from Barack Obama, followed by a round of applause from the crowd. Obama explained in his speech that honoring them was part of America's "moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition."

In 2010, Obama met with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, a leader who tortured hundreds of his own people and kept tight control over the media until he was overthrown in 2011. He and Obama appeared to have a conversation that was polite, but not friendly—mostly about Israel and Palestine. "I am grateful to President Mubarak for his visit, for his willingness to work with us on these critical issues, and to help advance the interest of peace and prosperity around the world," Obama said. (Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the strongman who now runs Egypt, was supported by the Obama administration and has been praised by Trump.)

Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the prime minster of Thailand just got a White House invitation from Trump. Last year, Chan-Ocha attended a summit for Asian leaders in California with Obama, and two years before that he seized power in a coup and essentially banned all criticism of his government. According to Obama, attendees focused on easing tensions in the South China Sea. "When [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] speaks with a clear and unified voice, it can help advance security, opportunity and human dignity," he said.

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How Drug Traffickers Use America’s Coast-to-Coast ‘Pot Pipeline’

On a new episode of WEEDIQUETTE, Krishna Andavolu tracks a shipment of bud from California to New York. Decreased enforcement in the Empire State and increased production out west has created a coast-to-coast "pot pipeline"—which Krishna follows alongside a trafficker who's mastered the route.

WEEDIQUETTE airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on VICELAND.

Plus, on a new episode of BONG APPÉTIT, Abdullah Saeed throws a Southern-style barbecue with industry legend Kevin Bludso. They dig into hemp-raised pork, cook up cannabis-infused cornbread, and top it all off with barbecue sauce that will get you stoned.

BONG APPÉTIT airs Wednesdays at 10:30 PM on VICELAND.

Want to know if you get VICELAND? Head here to find out how to tune in.

Tony Hawk Took a Selfie with This Guy After His Car Burst into Flames

Gone are the days of admiring rats for trying to eat an entire slice of pizza, of smiling down at them from a subway platform as they scurry along the tracks, of taking them home as pets and feeding them bok choy. These are times of war, and for one Brooklyn man, the rats struck first.

Last Friday, Alec Steinfeld was driving to work from Brooklyn to Manhattan when he caught a whiff of roadkill, local station WGN reports. He kept on driving, knowing that encountering a dead animal in New York wasn't too out of the ordinary. But once he got to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the smell had developed into an olfactory cocktail of burned plastic and death, and smoke started to billow out of his vehicle.

"Then smoke started to pillar," Steinfeld wrote on Facebook. "I pulled over and got out of the car."

Then his Volkswagen just burst into flames, and the fire department dispatched a truck to come put it out, though within three minutes, his engine was toast. When he popped the hood, he found two dead baby rats inside—his first clue as to what the hell he'd been smelling during his drive. He took a closer look and discovered that they'd nibbled through his electrical wiring, likely suffering a brutal end. Soon, two more rats emerged from the wheel of his car, where presumably they had been camping out, munching on his car's insides.

As if rats blowing up your car in the middle of Manhattan isn't weird enough, Steinfeld's day took an even stranger turn, and out of the smoke plumes, a golden ray of light emerged. As his car was spiraling into a fiery doom, he noticed Tony Hawk, the pro skater, was standing nearby filming the whole hellish scene before him.

Screengrab via WGN's broadcast report

"So I am watching my car get mauled by a rat fire, seeing Tony Hawk capture this across the street," Steinberg told WGN.

Though the Birdman didn't really do anything to help Steinberg out, he did join him for a selfie, which isn't nothing.

Photo from Alec Steinberg's Instagram

Just another Friday in Gotham, baby.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.

Virtual Reality Could Help Break America’s Opioid Addiction

It's like a crawly feeling inside," says Judy*. "You get hot, then chilled, and you feel like you want to run away." The 57-year-old has short dark-grey hair and a haunted expression. She's breathless and sits with her right leg balanced up on her walking stick, rocking it back and forth as she speaks.

Judy explains that she suffers from constant, debilitating pain: arthritis, back problems, fibromyalgia and daily migraines. She was a manager at a major electronics company until 2008, but can no longer work. She often hurts too much even to make it out of bed.

She's taking around 20 different medications each day, including painkillers, antidepressants, sedatives and a skin patch containing a high dose of the opioid drug fentanyl, which she says did not significantly help her pain and which she's now trying to come off. Her physician has been tapering the dose for months, so in addition to her pain she suffers withdrawal symptoms: the chills and crawling dread. Then her clinic announced that it would no longer prescribe any opioids at all, the unintended result of new, stricter measures aimed at clamping down on opioid abuse. Faced with losing access to the drug on which she is physically dependent, she has come to another clinic, Pain Consultants of East Tennessee (PCET) in Knoxville, desperate for help.

Continue reading on Tonic.

Japan Is Apparently Struggling to Meet Its Ninja Quota

There are a lot of reasons to visit Japan—the food, the fashion, the eclectic city streets of Tokyo—but now some are worried that the demand for ninjas has gotten so high that there aren't enough of them to entertain the influx of people visiting the country, the Telegraph reports.

Back in the day, ninjas were a legendary warrior force in Japan. According to the Independent, they were often recruited to work as spies or assassins, dishing out their distinct brand of violence using throwing stars or poisoned darts. Working as a ninja in Japan today is a lot more of a PR gig but still requires a special skill set in the art of ancient ninjutsu—unarmed combat, acrobatics, and sword fighting.

Apparently, some people who manage these entertaining ninja squads say that they're just not seeing these basic skills in many of their applicants and the demand has gotten out of control.

"With the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan on the increase, the value of ninja as tourism content has increased," Takatsugu Aoki, manager of the Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo Ninja Squad, told a local Japanese newspaper. "There are more employment choices while ninja shows held across the country have become popular, not to mention other attractions."

Aoki's squad has seen a major drop in applicants since 2016, when more than 230 people applied to join its seven-person ninja team. The gig was advertised globally and boasted a salary of $1,600 a month. So far this year, the squad has received only 22 applications, and Aoki believes competition is partially to blame.

"I feel there is a ninja shortage," he said.

PWR BTTM Is America’s Next Great Rock Band

Fuck. My. Hooooole!" Ben Hopkins craned their neck back for a celebratory howl. We were in Ricky's, a sort of wonderland for cosmetics and hair care in New York, and I'd just told the band PWR BTTM that Noisey had given us $50 to buy whatever makeup we wanted. Hopkins and bandmate Liv Bruce had been eyeing the top-shelf wigs behind the register for their balding third touring member, Cameron, but as soon as I'd explained the deal, both dispersed into the aisles.

Bruce went straight for the aquamarine mascara, unscrewing one and swooping the candy color over their lashes. Hopkins, losing all chill whatsoever, headed for the face paint. I picked up a box of fake lashes, fascinated at how anyone could apply them to their eyeballs without making them look, well, fake. "I usually just plaster them to my cheek," Hopkins said matter-of-factly, as if I should've been doing the same all along.

An eager cashier with a blue mustache handed over green and white tubs of paint, which Hopkins swatched on their skin. It'd do. With pastel lashes, Bruce scanned the NYX lipsticks, selecting a Barbie pink tone and holding it up to my lips. That'd do, too. In the end, we hauled two mascaras, a lipstick, two face paints and a tub of glitter to the register to check out.

Continue reading on Noisey.

You’ll Die in a Nuclear War, but These Elites Will Be Saved

There are details in Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die that read like they've been ripped from the pages of a pulp spy novel. The book, written by national security expert Garrett M. Graff, takes us inside the bunkers cut into granite mountainsides and dug under an elite country club. He brings us deep beneath the White House on 9/11 and into the cockpit of an airplane that doesn't officially exist. As you make your way through Raven Rock, it's easy to forget that all this elaborate high-tech doomsday infrastructure is actually real.

But Graff's half-century chronicle of the government's nuclear planning is far from an escapist spy thriller—he spends as much time on the mundane bureaucratic details of building and maintaining an elaborate worst-case scenario. To the executive branch leadership, the question of "winning" a nuclear encounter becomes, like any other government project, a logistical nightmare. There are thousands of cogs that must work in unison to protect DC leadership, symbols of democracy like the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell, and a few specific private industry heads before the capital is flattened by a nuke. In almost every test, and during the few attacks that have hit within American borders, hardly any of the well-laid plans actually worked.

Graff does a great job communicating the true, specific horror of a nuclear war for the average American, which is, effectively, that we'll all die and only a handful of very senior officials will be protected. Since the Kennedy administration, government officials have repeatedly explained the futility of protecting the civilian population. This has led to doomsday procedures—referred to as Continuation of Government (COG) planning—becoming narrower and narrower. Plans that prepared for nationwide civil defense under Eisenhower today simply focus on saving a coterie of top government officials—for example, Clinton advisor George Stephanopoulos would have been saved, but press secretary Dee Dee Myers, along with almost all of us, would not have been. In a scene in Raven Rock, General Thomas Power explains to a horrified John F. Kennedy, "Look—at the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!"

But as awful as nuclear war would be, Graff does well to highlight the impact of doomsday planning on peacetime government, and what it says about our democracy in general. Spearheaded by the executive branch, COG planning leaves most of Congress and all of the public out of the confidential decision-making. The classified programs, technology, and infrastructure are impossible to account for—Graff estimates they cost the country at least $2 billion annually. They also include crisis plans that run counter to the Constitution. JFK's attorney general's emergency briefcase, for instance, would have allowed him suspend habeas corpus. Other presidents' apocalypse contingencies have included forced nationalization of industries as well as plans to install unelected private sector executives to run broad swathes of the emergency government. Graff makes it clear that surviving a nuclear war would not be much better than dying in one: If doomsday plans save neither American people nor America's democratic principles, what exactly are they protecting?

Raven Rock, which should have been a Cold War history, now feels especially timely, hitting bookstores right as a President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un's on-again, off-again relationship pushes us ever closer to nuclear holocaust. I called Graff to talk about secret bunkers, shadow governments, and the unfortunate fact that we'll all die during a nuclear war.

VICE: I was somewhat aware of the idea of doomsday prepping, but the scale of the investment and the infrastructure was pretty shocking to me. What got you interested in the United States government's doomsday plans?
Garrett M. Graff: I've covered national security and intelligence in Washington for a dozen years at this point, and it's something that you sort of bump up against—you hear people talking about these facilities, you hear people talking about some of these programs. But a couple of years ago, when I was at the Washingtonian , a colleague of mine found a federal employee's ID on the floor of a parking garage, and was like, "I'm gonna give it back to him." But when we turned the ID over, it had evacuation instructions on the back. I decided to follow the directions to this facility on Google Maps, and looking on Google Satellite, you could see that if you follow the instructions, it ends in a road that just disappears into a mountain in West Virginia. At that point, I'd never heard of the facility and had never seen anyone talk about before. And I was like, "Oh wow, this is a whole new series of bunkers that have been built up since 9/11."

Throughout the book, sources remind us again and again that, in all likelihood, almost every average American will die in a nuclear encounter. There's a stunning quote from the New York deputy head of Civilian Defense in the late 70s about warning sirens the city had installed: "The people who hear them will run into buildings and be turned into sand in a few seconds anyway." How would public sentiment change if it fully registered that despite the billions spent on nuclear war prepping, the average citizen would not survive a nuclear encounter?
That, in my mind, is the central tension of the whole book: The government started off with all of these grand hopes to be able to protect the citizenry and then gradually the scale of the weapons and the size of the weapons overtook any reasonable efforts to protect the civilian population. The government plans just kept getting simpler and simpler until it was just about getting this core group of government leaders into the side of a mountain or up into a plane somewhere.

And you talk about how the doomsday prepping is really about protecting the idea of the US government rather than American citizens.
I think that that gets to what is the absolute essence of the question that these doomsday planners have struggled with for generations and continue to struggle with today, which is: If you are trying to preserve America, well, what is America? Is it the presidency? Is it the three branches of government? Is it the Constitution and the Liberty Bell? Is it a capitalist society? You really see how different generations of government planners struggled with that question. And now it seems like the answer is, effectively: America is the presidency, and then eventually, after some length of time, it's three branches of government, and after some additional length of time, it's a functioning post office, tax system, so on and so forth.

In the book, William Arkin, a nuclear weapons scholar, tells CNN: "As long as we have nuclear weapons, we're going to have to fudge the Constitution."
Yeah, and I think that part of what is weird and troubling about this entire world is we know precious little about what these powers mean today. For all we know, there could be czars walking out amongst us right now, who after a catastrophic attack, will help nationalize industries. And I'm sure that there are similar pre-written executive orders and draft legislation waiting on shelves in Washington offices or bunker safes ready to be unveiled in the moment of a catastrophe. In some ways, it's not so troubling to me that these systems exist—it's how little we actually know about them, even the ones that are in play today.

"If you are trying to preserve America, well, what is America? Generations of government planners struggled with that question. The answer is, effectively: America is the presidency, and then eventually, after some length of time, it's three branches of government, and after some additional length of time, it's a functioning post office, tax system, so on and so forth."

The book is definitely dark, but I took comfort in a scene that kept occurring throughout: A president would come to office, have the reality of nuclear war explained to him, and then realize that it was too terrible to even consider. Do you think that the American President's understanding the gravity of the nuclear option is the best deterrent to nuclear war?
Yes, absolutely. And you see that on both sides. There's also the Khrushchev quote in the book about how when he was first given the nuclear powers, he was terrified by them. But then he thought about it and was like, "Oh, well. I guess no one's ever going to use them, so it will be OK."

What's frightening to me is the question of whether or not Trump understands that gravity.
And the entire point of everything that was done during the Cold War was about trying to simplify and remove any checks or balances or impediments to a president quickly and unilaterally launching a nuclear war. So, that's a real challenge in the system—the entire point of the system is geared toward ensuring that the moment a president decides to launch nuclear weapons that they are launched as broadly and as efficiently as possible. But that all presupposes that the person who would make that order is the most sober and thoughtful and well-educated person in the nuclear system.

"You've really seen the US government over the last couple of decades pretty much decide that people are going to be left on their own."

Unfortunately, the book is coming out an important moment, with Trump and Kim Jong-un posturing about nuclear war. You've spent years studying the government's doomsday preparedness—if North Korea dropped a bomb on America, do you think the public would be safer today than we would have been in the 1960s?
Well, you do have to look at the level of scale: North Korea doesn't, at least yet, have anywhere close to the arsenal that the Soviet Union did at its peak, or even that Russia has today. But that is of little comfort to anyone who does get hit by a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world today. I think the actual technical answer to your question is: Yes, we are safer in that Kim Jong-un would only be able to kill perhaps several tens of millions of people as opposed to several hundreds of millions.

But I don't think that's actually the question that you're asking. I think you're asking: Are we any better prepared today? And I think the answer to that is no. In some ways, we haven't taken civilian preparedness seriously since the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And the experience of a generation of doomsday planners is that protecting the civilian population is actually more trouble than it's worth. So you've really seen the US government over the last couple of decades pretty much decide that people are going to be left on their own.

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Raven's Rock: The Story of the US Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff is available in bookstores and online from Simon and Schuster.