I live in a tiny apartment in Clairemont, and every time I say I’m originally from Las Vegas, I hear an assortment of “Wow,” “Cool,” and “Ohhh.” People have their own perspectives on the City of Sin and what goes on there. Some abhor it. Most see it as a place to go and have fun. But for three years it was the place where I went to school, work, and football practice, the city that I called home. I still go there a lot on weekends. In the summer, at noon you can find me bodysurfing in the cool Pacific water at La Jolla Shores, but before nightfall I’m often 350 miles away in a place that feels like an oven. When I come back to San Diego and tell my friends I’ve spent the weekend in Vegas, I usually receive a knowing grin. Most think they’re in on the conspiracy; they assume I’ve been drinking, clubbing, and gambling. This is rarely the case. When I go to Vegas, it’s for my mom’s cooking and the comforts of home and old friends. I despise gambling. I let my fellow San Diegans assume what they want.
The night my UCSD friends and I arrive at the Strip, one of my friends and I stand anxiously at the entrance to an exclusive nightclub. An old connection is supposed to get us in without the $35 cover charge. Accidentally, I blow cigarette smoke in the face of a massive bouncer. “I can’t believe you just did that,” he complains. He rolls his eyes and angrily bars the way into the club with a velvet rope, then walks off shaking his head. When he returns, I offer him $20. He refuses it but let us in anyway.
Within the bowels of the massive casino, sexy young bodies gyrate to a catchy beat while the bass resonates inside half-full, $15 glasses of vodka and Red Bull. Relieved to be hassle-free, we set up base in the club. My wingman and I locate a pair of short-skirted beauties dancing solo and decide to begin our operation. The task is to find girls who will dance with us. Until this trip, I’d never bothered to go to clubs or shell out money for a hotel room on the Strip. I’d been content that tourists were pumping my city full of money. But I was missing out.
To accomplish the mission, we must rely on effective communication despite deafening dance music and intoxicating libations. Two gorgeous women let us press our crotches against their backsides for a song or two: this is called dancing. This kind of excess, luxury, and delirious sin is a big part of what makes Islamist extremists hate the West.
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In another desert halfway across the world, flesh-mutilating shrapnel screams through the hot, dry air, killing anything within a ten-foot radius and maiming anyone at the next level of proximity. U.S. soldiers attempt to control the perimeter and assess casualties after the deadly blast from a roadside improvised explosive device (IED). The ringing in their ears drowns out the hideous wailing of their dying counterparts.
But the cavalry is coming. Insurgents in the Middle East can’t see or hear them until it’s too late. The MQ-1 Predator drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is a giant, remote-controlled airplane capable of decimating buildings with massive Hellfire missiles while easily targeting suspicious characters with infrared cameras, even in the middle of a dust storm. Sitting in a trailer at Creech Air Force Base, half an hour north of Las Vegas, members of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron observe four bearded, robe-wearing men clustered on the side of a dirt road about an hour from Kabul. By using UAVs, pilots sit safely inside a metal, air-conditioned box, controlling a Predator drone almost 8000 miles away in a hostile war zone.
U.S. Special Forces operate in the desert, fighting enemies who look exactly like innocent villagers. The old man by the well in brown robes — he could have pounds of dynamite strapped to his chest. That piece of trash by the side of the road — it could be concealing a deadly, explosive surprise. The troops on the ground have no way of knowing a goat herder from a Taliban warlord. This is why intelligence is crucial. Predators play that vital role. Once a veteran F-15 pilot, my dad sits at the controls in his trailer, spying on the enemy.
“They got Zarqawi!” my mom told me one evening, back when I still lived in Vegas. “Your dad was involved with the mission, but he won’t tell you.” I’m used to this. My dad, who at the time was an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, would know the happenings in the Middle East weeks before the media. When I asked him about capturing al-Qaeda’s number-two man, I received the usual response: “I’m not at liberty to say.” It’s a joke between us. My dad can’t tell me anything that might threaten our troops or national security — this was before Wikileaks could tell me everything. Nonetheless, a grin from my father is usually all I need to confirm the facts. That evening, I hoped his lips would loosen as he worked on a gin and tonic at dinner. The grin got wider.
“I saw a fully armored Navy SEAL sprint 100 yards and tackle someone,” he said. “These guys are badasses.” This is the kind of thing my dad frequently sees through the electronic eyes of the MQ-1. The intelligence gathered by the UAVs helps the SEALs beat the snot out of terrorists with increased efficiency and decreased friendly casualties. Communication via satellite is slightly delayed for Predator pilots — it takes a little under ten seconds for operators to see what is happening — but this isn’t a problem because the MQ-1 flies high in the air and is mostly invisible. Troops on the ground are informed in less than a minute if the UAV spies anything suspicious.