In One Fitness Class, the Fight Against Terrorism Gets Personal
Close-Range Combat, Hostage Survival Among Topics
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 16, 2001; Page A06
SAN FRANCISCO -- The students were a varied group -- dot-commers, parents, consultants, retirees -- some in workout clothes, some straight from the office in dress shirts and khakis. At the front of the room, muscular in black beret, camouflage fatigues and bare feet, stood the teacher, Army National Guard Sgt. Ken Weichert.
"The number one resource for terrorists is to watch what you're doing and to study you," Weichert said. "Boom. They know everything about you and they change your life. Folks, make sure you cover your rear ends."
This is a physical fitness class in the post-Sept. 11 world.
Weichert spent four years in the Army and the past eight in the National Guard -- currently with the 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion -- so his fitness classes at the Karate One studio have always had a military flavor. But after hijacked passenger jets were crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field last month, he began getting calls from people concerned less about their abs and more about how to deflect a fanatic with a box-cutter in the narrow aisle of an airplane.
So he started a workshop: "Self-Defense and Terrorism Counteraction." Besides the usual sets of push-ups and jumping jacks, the class offers advice on close- and mid-range combat, personal security, how to spot a terrorist and hostage survival. It lasts 90 minutes and costs $20; all proceeds, he says, will be donated to the Red Cross East Coast Disasters Fund.
All of this may do little more than make the participants feel better -- but in the battle against terrorism, where refusal to be intimidated is a kind of victory, that may prove to be enough.
It was enough for Elena Andrade, 50, a financial services rep who is going to get on an airplane later this month for the first time since Sept. 11. She had been dreading it, so she signed up for Weichert's class.
"Doing this makes me feel more in control," she said. "I need that now."
The class has no connection to the Army or the National Guard. But Weichert's Guard supervisor, Maj. Sgt. Frank Liautaud, says he supports what the sergeant is doing.
"Before Sept. 11, we were living under a false sense of security," Liautaud said. "I think it would behoove everyone to be more aware of their surroundings. People should not be afraid to walk down the street."
Mark Allen, a spokesman for the National Guard, didn't know anything about the class, but said that he liked the idea of giving citizens common-sense information.
"It sounds like he is saying, 'Rather than just sitting still waiting for something to happen, let's do something to help ourselves in this situation,' " Allen said. "As a private citizen, that self-initiative is what makes America the country it is today."
For Linda Pederson, it didn't matter that the class wasn't official. What was important was Weichert's background.
"I feel confident that he has the knowledge and experience to back up what he is telling us," said Pederson, 31, who does public relations for Yahoo. "The information feels a lot more authentic because of his time with the military."
After 60 minutes of punching, kicking, push-ups and choke holds, Weichert gathered the students for briefing and discussion -- beginning by asking for a definition of the word "terrorism."
"Invoking fear," one woman shouted out. "The random use of destructive force," said another. "An unprovoked attack," added a third.
Weichert approved. "Your ability to come together and act as a community, that's the first step to counteracting terrorism," he said. As for spotting potential terrorists, he chose his words carefully: "The enemy is not a Muslim. We need to get that through our heads right now. The enemy is not a religion," he said. "The enemy is an extremist."
As for being alert to biochemical attacks, some practical advice: "Ninety-six point two percent of the chemicals used in mailed package bombs smell like shoe polish or almonds," Weichert told the class. This, he said, he learned at the Department of Defense's Nuclear Biological Chemical defense school.
"That came as a surprise," said Devon Rager, 26, an environmental consultant, afterward. "Who would have known?"
Gayle Moore, 54, said that as a flight attendant for American Airlines, she had received countless hours of anti-terrorist training. But she hadn't come for herself; she dragged along her 16-year-old daughter, Morgan.
"I wanted to help her feel more empowered regarding her own personal safety," Gayle Moore said. "Kids her age think they are immortal and that life is carefree. But that freedom's gone for everyone. The reality is, all of us have to be aware all the time."
As Andrade left the studio, she let out a deep sigh. "I think," she said with a smile, "I'm ready to get on that plane now."