On July 4, 1902 Roosevelt had proclaimed the U.S. war in the Philippines over, except for disturbances in the Muslim area. In 1905, the imperial cruise steamed into the port city of Zamboanga, a Muslim enclave 516 miles south of Manila. Princess Alice sipped punch under a hot tropical sun as “Big Bill” Taft deliver a florid speech extolling the benefits of the American way.
A century later I ventured to Zamboanga and learned that the local Muslims hadn’t taken Taft’s message to heart: Zamboanga officials feared for my safety because I was an American and would not allow me to venture out of my hotel without an armed police escort.
The city looked peaceable enough to me and I thought the Zamboanga police’s concern was overdone. One morning I was sitting in the backseat of a chauffeured car with my plainclothes police escort as we drove by city hall. The handsome old wooden building had once been headquarters of the American military. The U.S. general “Black Jack” Pershing had ruled local Muslims from a desk there, and the grassy shaded park across the street was named after him.
“Can we stop?”, I asked the driver, who pulled to the curb. I got out of the car alone to take pictures, thinking I was safe in front of city hall. After all, here I was in the busy downtown area, in broad daylight, with mothers and their strollers nearby in a park named after an American.
My bodyguard thought otherwise. He jumped out of the car, his darting eyes scanning pedestrians, cars, windows, and rooftops, and his right hand hovered over the pistol at his side.
It was the same later, indoors at Zamboanga’s largest mall. I was shopping for men’s trousers, looking through the racks. I glanced up to see my bodyguard with his back to me eyeing the milling crowd. The Zamboanga police probably breathed a sigh of relief when I eventually left town.
Muslim terrorist attacks struck Zamboanga the day after I departed. Two powerful bombs maimed twenty-six people, brought down buildings, blew up cars, severed electrical lines, and plunged the city into darkness and fear. The first bomb had cratered a sidewalk on whose cement I had recently trod, while the second one collapsed a hotel next door to Zamboanga’s police station — just down the street from the mall I had judged safe. Police sources told reporters the blasts were intended to divert Filipino and American army troops from their manhunt of an important Muslim insurgent.