I was sitting at home one day in 2004 when the phone rang. “Department of Homeland Security,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “We have a question for you.” If this sounds like the setup to a thriller, trust me, I know: I write them for a living. I thought this had to be a prank. But eventually it became clear that the caller was serious. Even without a fancy accent and an Aston Martin, I was being recruited for something called the Red Cell program, an unorthodox federal attempt to anticipate how, in the wake of 9/11, terrorists might next attack the U.S. The black shoes at Homeland Security already had hundreds of people steeped in the same books, thinking the same thoughts about the same targets. Members of Red Cell were brought in to be “out of the box” thinkers.
I didn’t know how I’d been selected (an FBI friend later told me it was because the bureau had found one of my books on the desk of an alleged money launderer). But after a pang of initial fear—if we needed my help, I thought, then we’re all in deep trouble—I signed on to the job. During the next few months, the program’s staff would email me a target. My mission: imagine a way to attack it. I can’t tell you what or where we targeted. I can say, though, that I would destroy major landmarks and level great cities. I got invited to a group session in northern Virginia, where the government had leased some nondescript office space in the kind of complex where only nondescript business was done.
We ate bagels, leafed through info packets, and small-talked before the brainstorming session began. My squad included a chemist, a professor of Middle Eastern studies, and former CIA and FBI employees. We’d take a question—for example, how would you attack the White House?—and run through scenarios. With the chemist handling explosives, the professor suggesting motives, the ex-agents highlighting possible security flaws, and me channeling the creativity of the bad guys in my books (and The A-Team), we would flatten some piece of America in minutes. When I went home at night, I didn’t feel good. I felt terrified, because it was so easy.
Those experiences came back to me earlier this month when an alleged terrorist tried to detonate a homemade bomb in Times Square (exactly the type of place we would focus on). Thankfully, the bomb was poorly made, kicking out black plumes and nothing more. But the real key was the civilians who noticed the smoke. They were street vendors—guys whom, on any other day, we’d walk right past, barely noticing the $3.99 I LOVE NY T shirts, handbags, and watches they were selling.
That’s not surprising; we can’t have appreciation parades every day. But we can, and should, recognize the role regular people play in protecting the country. When I war-gamed with Homeland Security, real heroes helped us—federal agents with frontline experience who provided the vital facts we needed to construct our plots. But the vendors’ role in thwarting possible disaster reminded me that there are many more heroes—musicians, philosophers, software developers, untold others—whose names you’ll never know and whose contributions are unknown to the public.
This has long been true. Historians estimated that about 6,000 Americans spied for the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor, in WWII. When the documents were unsealed a few years ago, however, the number was 24,000 (including previously unknown employees such as Julia Child, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, and a catcher for the White Sox). It may be that invisibility is the most beautiful part of any great tale. Most folks don’t set out hoping to do something of great significance, after all; they just live their lives. That’s why the next hero could very well be you.
Meltzer’s latest book, Heroes for My Son, is a nonfiction collection of essays about extraordinary people.