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Tuesday, April 27, 2004

POST-WAR RECONSTRUCTION, PART II

Continued from yesterday

When I next interviewed Jason Foo, late February, early March, he wanted to talk about the recent business merger that had just added even more land holdings to his ever-expanding real estate empire. But to be totally honest, I was a bit more interested in what happened, when Foo helped fight the Al Qaeda-linked terrorists of Abu Sayyaf, in the Philippines.

“Working together and combining names,” he wrote to me in an Instant Message press release, “we will not only sell land in every area possible, we will also offer condo and land rentals as well! We are building a massive team of professional builders and realtors to maximize property and condo development!”

When I arrive in-world, Jason takes me through the headquarters of Realm Development. It's still under construction, but it already boasts a disco in the basement, and a main structure built against a cliff face, a multi-leveled, glass and steel building, standing by the sea.

“So how's your knee doing?” I ask him. Jason lost a quarter of a kneecap to an exploding mine, in Afghanistan.

“Still feels like someone is stabbing me with a knife when I walk up the stairs,” he says. “I'll live, though. No big deal. I just need to get a cane.”

“How long will you need the cane?”

“The rest of my life,” Jason Foo says, laughing.

“Will your Veterans Administration benefits be enough to cover you?”

“Nope. ‘Cause technically, I can still work.”

“So they only give you partial benefits?”

“Yep. Doesn't matter," he says, unfazed, "I'm starting a business. A fitness center, I am starting with my mom.”

That’s in the world outside. Meanwhile, I’m here to see how his Second Life businesses are going.

“This is our new club,” Foo tells me, taking me out on the open-air deck, “[still] in development. House by Mouse merged with me-- the owner is Chadd Murray. Now he is my Vice President . We have over five thousand square meters at any given time. I sell property so fast that I can't buy it fast enough. We average about L$10,000 a day. We are trying to get a program together for noobs. [“Noobs”, from “newbies”, i.e. “abject, helpless beginners”.] We want to make sure every noob can get a cheap plot of land,” Foo adds.

And this is about where my duties as an embedded journalist for Second Life begin to clash with my real-world journalism instincts. Jason Foo’s land acquisition effort is definitely part of a broader trend, of recent months, with larger and larger tracts of territory coming under ownership by a small number of residents. (Longtime citizen Sabre Titan recently bemoaned this as “the feudal era of Second Life”, telling me that “I see where this is heading-- only the rich will own the land, and us normal builders and residents will wander and spend within their establishments.")

On the other side, I’d really like to know just what Jason Foo did in the Philippines.

“You were supporting Filipino soldiers looking for terrorist camps?” I suggest.

“Well,” says Foo, “we didn't have to look. We knew where they were. They took a whole mountain. And fortified themselves in it. Can’t remember how to spell the name of the mountain, but we surrounded a mountain in the far West, I think, and took out the terrorists.” In retrospect, he’s probably talking about the ultra-violent, Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists of Abu Sayyaf, but, says Foo, “I really don't remember much about the names. Like I said, three places in eight months.” (By now, we’ve switched from chat to private Instant Message; it doesn’t seem appropriate to be talking about actual war where anyone passing by can hear us.)

“Well, we surrounded [the mountain],” Foo continues, “and cut off all of their supply routs. My unit was fifteen men. The special [forces] unit. We set up all the forward communications and specialized equipment. We went in and flushed them out. Most surrendered after a week of no supplies [and] no air support.”

“Actual skirmishes? I didn't know there were any.”

Jason Foo laughs. “The media tells you what we want you to know.”

And this might be the first time that New World Notes is breaking actual, real world news. For up until now, the Pentagon has been vague about what US troops have been doing in the Philippines; there may be some fairly significant legal and diplomatic concerns, if it’s the case that they’ve moved from an “advise and assist” capacity with Filipino troops, to actual combat with terrorists and insurgents. And if the person behind this avatar standing on the balcony of a virtual nightclub is telling the truth, then it’s already gone far beyond that. (And as it turns out, a quick Google search with "Marines fighting Philippines Abu Sayyaf" yields nothing but hints of direct US involvement in Filipino combat-- and from the Filipino government, strenuous denials of same.)

In the Marines, Jason was a Communications Specialist, which is the Corps’ taciturn way of describing the tremendously dangerous set of duties which involve forward reconnaissance well ahead of the front lines. “I wanted to test my skills to the max,” Foo tells me, on why he volunteered, “It was the biggest honor. Together with our [individual] specialties, we could smash a computer to pieces and put it back together with bubblegum, wire and sticks, and make it work. It’s crazy, the s*** we know, [like] using a tree to communicate with a satellite, by rigging up a satcom system to the tree and connecting an amplifier.”

When enemy troops doesn’t interrupt them, that is: “My unit got attacked at least once in each place we went.”

“From how far a distance?”

“I have an Iraqi bayonet,” Foo says, by way of explanation.

Which brings us back to the fedayeen commando who wanted to kill Jason Foo, another world away from this deck above the high-poly ocean. A member of Uday Hussein's fanatically loyal shock troops, infamous for quelling dissent by publicly beheading suspect Iraqi women in front of their families, the man had an assault rifle with a bayonet, and he was charging down on Foo.

“His gun jammed, and he went to run me through. I grabbed the gun, detached the bayonet, and cut his throat.

“I saw and did quite a bit,” Jason Foo concludes.

And I wonder if it's wise to discuss this any further with him. It’s easy to reveal the most personal things in a medium that is this abstract and intimate at once-- perhaps too much so, at times. As a journalist, I’ve had more earnest, unreserved, in-depth interviews in Second Life, than I’ve ever conducted on the phone, or even in person. In that regard, the vivid anonymity of Second Life is an enormous advantage, for reporters. Then again, it also suggests the need to have an even more stringent sense of journalistic ethics. These are real people behind these screens, and there are consequences involved, when it comes to publishing what they choose to tell you. And asking them to tell you more.

“Do you mind talking about all this?” I ask. “Just want to make sure.”

“It’s cool,” says Foo, “I went through therapy.” Just before he got back to the States, he says, “The war wouldn't stop in my head. I went crazy for two weeks... Someone always had to be with me at night. Someone would check on me every hour.”

I wonder aloud if he can ever fully recover from what he's been through.

“I hope so,” says Jason. “I keep having flashbacks and nightmares, though.”

And once again, I ask him if my having this conversation, relating his story to me here, like this, is worthwhile to him, or detrimental to his recovery.

“I think it helps,” he says, after some thought, and then changes the subject. “Hey, do you know all about how groups work? I need to know how to add and remove money from the group.”

Group ownership rights are an important way of running large enterprises, which in Foo’s case, means his drive to “get the club and casino running, offer cheap land to anyone who wants it. And make group funds pay all land fees for the Realm Development members. It’s L$1,000 to join out group, and you get a 512 [square meter] plot to start selling with, and a For Sale sign.”

Somehow, though, it's a bit difficult to change tracks at the moment. Or stop plunging ahead, even while you suspect, as you formulate the next question on your keyboard, that you're about to ask one question too many.

“Did losing a friend in Afghanistan make all this worse, you think?”

“Yes, it did,” says Jason. “Nothing hits ‘til it’s over.”

I offer my condolences. “It’s OK,” he insists. “But hey, man, my girlfriend is on her way over, so I have to get going.”

“What were you doing in Afghanistan?”

“Killing people,” says Jason Foo, brusquely. “I'll catch you later, man, OK?

Concluded tomorrow: Catching up after Falluja…

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Comments

Gripping stuff to be sure, but as you say there is not much you can do to verify your sources in this environment. This makes real-world journalism tough to pull off from within Second Life. I imagine that may sometimes be frustrating for you, though I know it's not part of your mandate as "official embedded journalist" to offer that kind of coverage.

Glad to see that you've moved to the blog format. I think that may make it easier for your news dispatches to interact and connect with the online life and work of other Lifers, many of whom I suspect also have blogs.

Posted by: Elroy Ingersoll at Apr 27, 2004 7:37:50 AM

Thanks! Yeah, I'm enjoying the blog format;
a few other residents have blogs. In fact,
I'm thinking of adding links to those, on a
sidebar, if that can work.

As for verifying sources, there are ways
you can do that as a reporter, and I do that
sometimes, when I feel there's a need for it.
As I did with this one. Overall, however, my
main method of verification is self-consistency
and common sense-- which, when you think about
it, is the main standard for most Internet
transactions.

Posted by: Hamlet Linden at Apr 30, 2004 4:37:01 PM