David Grossman paced the hotel ballroom with a microphone, waving his arms like a televangelist and uttering horrific prophecies of doom:
"The bad guys are coming with rifles and body armor!"
"They're gonna sweep through your mall!"
"They will destroy our way of life in one day!"
A retired Army lieutenant colonel, Grossman is the author of "On Killing" and the founder of the Killology Research Group and its Web site, killology.com. He came to the World SWAT Challenge and Conference to address nearly 100 cops -- members of paramilitary police units known as SWAT teams, which is short for Special Weapons And Tactics. Grossman told them we're living in a "new Dark Age," an era of al Qaeda-style terrorism combined with Oklahoma City-style bombings and Columbine-style school shootings by kids whose brains are warped by violent video games.
Most people are sheep, Grossman said, and you are the warriors who must protect them from the wolves.
"Embrace the warrior spirit!" he yelled.
"Live the warrior life!" he bellowed.
"We need warriors who embrace that dirty, nasty four-letter word kill!" he proclaimed.
Maybe he's right. Maybe the barbarians are at the gates and SWAT teams are our last line of defense. But in America, where almost everything eventually becomes a form of entertainment, SWAT is now a sport and these cops had come for the first World SWAT Challenge, a two-day, made-for-TV competition that will become a reality show scheduled to air July 17 on ESPN2.
"It's really kind of a niche sport," says Jack O'Connor, the mastermind of the SWAT Challenge.
For more than a decade, he has produced similar "niche sport" events for cable TV, such as firefighter competitions and Army Ranger competitions. He has also produced two previous SWAT shows for ESPN, but those featured only American teams and this event was designed to include teams from around the world. But after the Madrid bombing in March, all the European teams dropped out. And as O'Connor, 55, sat in the audience at Grossman's speech, he looked worried.
"The Poles backed out," he said, "the Norwegians got deployed and I don't know were the [bleep] Cleveland is."
But all was not lost. Twelve SWAT teams had come, including one from Washington's Metropolitan Police Department, which agreed to become a last-minute fill-in. And a Canadian team had arrived, so O'Connor could still call this a World SWAT Challenge.
Meanwhile, Maxim magazine was covering the challenge. So were TV crews from Germany and Sweden and Japan, attracted to the event because it was taking place on the 6,000-acre, northeastern North Carolina training facility of Blackwater USA, the mysterious private security company that became famous when four of its contractors were killed in Fallujah in March, their bodies torn apart by an angry Iraqi mob.
"This will be, without question, the world's best SWAT competition ever," O'Connor promised. "These guys are the best of the best. And it's all live fire -- real bullets -- so don't stand in front of them."
At the opening ceremonies Friday morning, the 12 teams and a few dozen fans gathered around Blackwater's flagpole and bowed their heads while D.R. Staton, chaplain of the Virginia Beach Police Department, delivered a benediction. Dressed in a police uniform accessorized with a clerical collar, Staton asked for the protection of God, whom he addressed as "my commander in chief."
After that, Blackwater President Gary Jackson uttered the Olympic battle cry: "Let the games begin!"
The first game was the Sniper Surprise, which required each six-man team to fire at targets from behind a car door, then race to a six-foot steel wall, climb it, run to a firing line and shoot at more targets. Meanwhile, each team's designated sniper was scaling a roof and firing at a balloon bobbing in the breeze 100 yards down range. And each had to do it all while wearing combat boots and a bulletproof vest and lugging a pistol and a rifle across swampland stewing in a 90-degree swelter.
The first heat went off without incident, with the team from Brunswick County, N.C., beating the team from Marietta, Ga. Then, while the range wardens were setting up the course for the second heat, a shot rang out.
The crowd gasped.
"Who shot that?" O'Connor yelled. "Who shot that?"
The shooter was a cop from Charleston, S.C. Waiting to compete in the second heat, he decided to do a little practice firing, apparently forgetting that his gun was loaded. Fortunately he hit a steel target, not a range warden.
"That's a major safety violation!" O'Connor yelled. "He's out! Get a new man! He's out! Disqualified! He's out!"
The crowd stood in stunned silence. But after a few minutes, folks started telling stories about accidental discharges at other SWAT competitions, like the time somebody from the notoriously inept Kuwaiti SWAT team accidentally fired off a round in the parking lot of the SWAT Roundup in Orlando. Oops! Fortunately, nobody was hurt there, either.
Soon, the mood was lightened with SWAT-style gallows humor.
"Wrong event, pal!" said Paul Davis, O'Connor's business associate. "This isn't 'Take Out Your Partner.' "
Bob Ramsey, the sportscaster who will do the narration for the ESPN show, laughed and suggested a new way to make money off this event: "Sell body armor to the spectators."
The wayward shot will never be mentioned in the ESPN show. "We don't show the bad stuff," O'Connor explained. "These are our guys and if a guy looks like a total stupid fool, we don't use that. We don't hang 'em out to dry."
Apparently, reality sometimes gets a bit too real for reality TV.
"Get the body!" screamed the fans from Sunnyvale, Calif. "Get the body!"
The Sunnyvale team had lots of fans, most of them wives of the Sunnyvale team, many of them blond and windswept in the classic California Girl style. They were very popular with the members of all the SWAT teams, who are, as Davis put it, "marinated in testosterone."
"Get the body!" they yelled. "Get the body!"
The Sunnyvale team earned its place in the SWAT Challenge by winning the "Best of the West" SWAT games last September. At the moment, its members were competing in the Stress Course event, which required them to push a pickup truck through 100 yards of a sandy field, climb walls, jump hurdles, fire their AR-15 rifles at targets, then carry "Rescue Randy" -- an amazingly lifelike, man-size 165-pound dummy -- back to the pickup. But they dropped poor Randy going over the hurdles, sending him sprawling.
"Get the body!" the fans yelled. "Go! Go! Go!"
The Sunnyvale cops picked Randy back up. They hauled him over the hurdles, they pushed him over the fence, and then they sprinted to the pickup and tossed him into the truck bed in a manner that would have killed him if he were actually alive.
After that, they slumped to the ground, gasping for air and looking almost as battered as Randy.
The World SWAT Challenge has eight events, each one more grueling than the last, and each of them named for its sponsor, usually a company that makes SWAT-related equipment. For instance, the event requiring contestants to rappel down a wall and into an open window before shooting a sniper rifle at moving targets 100 yards away was called Bushmaster High Angle Hell, named after the Bushmaster rifle, which became famous in 2002 when it was used by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the infamous Washington snipers, to kill nine people.
The games were designed to approximate the actual activities SWAT teams perform on the street: raiding houses, busting down doors, chasing fugitives, rescuing hostages and, if absolutely necessary, shooting a bad guy in a crowd at long range. All the running in these events was designed to get a competitor's heart racing as it does in moments of high stress.
"It puts a little stress on you so you can see how you'll perform under stress," said Adam Powell, 38, of the Washington SWAT team, "because it gets stressful in those situations."
"There's no duplicating the stress of war or a real-life SWAT situation," said Riad Freijy, 37, who was born in Lebanon and served as a Marine Corps sniper in the Persian Gulf War before joining the San Antonio SWAT team. "There is no duplicating that. But the environment of a competition is the closest you can get to duplicating that stress."
Daryl Stewart, 37, a sniper on the Washington SWAT team, learned last March what it feels like to shoot a human being. Stewart and another officer served a warrant on a psychotic woman suspected of arson. She refused to come out of her house, so they shot tear gas inside. She emerged holding an ax and a butcher knife and attacked an officer, Stewart says. At that point, he shot her in the chest. She lived.
He tells the story with no hint of swagger or braggadocio, just a tone of quiet sadness.
"Hopefully, she'll live a long life," he said, "a long and healthy life."
By noon Saturday, with three events still to go, the amazing San Antonio SWAT team was so far ahead it had already locked up victory. Judged on speed and accuracy, the team members ultimately came in first place in five of the eight events. For their efforts they won flashlights, gas masks, commando helmets, combat boots, laser rifle sights, three rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammo.
Meanwhile, the Washington team was buried deep in last place. That wasn't surprising: As a last-minute fill-in, it hadn't had much time to practice.
"San Antonio is kicking booty and there's a reason for it -- training," said Charles Yarbaugh, 48, captain of Washington's team. "Training has a lot to do with your performance."
Washington's SWAT team used to train on the grounds of the Lorton prison complex, Yarbaugh said, but the feds closed the complex a few years ago. Since then, he said, they've had to scramble for shooting time at various police and military ranges.
"It gets very, very frustrating," he said. "We're the nation's capital. If anything happens in the nation's capital, we're it. We try to get it done the best we can. But if you're the mayor or the city council, wouldn't you want to give the guys what they need?"
"Okay, guys, listen up," said Jim Sierawski, Blackwater's director of training.
Sierawski was about to explain the Zodiac Water Hostage Rescue to the Dallas SWAT team. The event required competitors to row a Zodiac boat to a house, where they'd have to rescue the ubiquitous Randy the dummy.
One of the Dallas guys smiled. "There's absolutely no water in Dallas, by the way," he said. A moment later he moved a few steps away from his team, turned his back and urinated into the sand.
"That red cone is where you're going to beach the boat," Sierawski was saying. "Then you're going to climb over the hill."
It was a simple game, really: All they had to do was squeeze six SWAT guys -- with their rifles and pistols and body armor -- into the little inflatable boat, paddle through a shallow creek and across a lake, beach the boat, scale a sand berm, shoot some targets, batter down the door of a house and throw in some flash-bang grenades (designed to disorient targets without causing injury), shoot some more targets inside the house, locate Randy, then carry him back to the boat and row him back to the starting line.
Sierawski led the Dallas team around the lake and into the house, where O'Connor was waiting with instructions about the proper handling of Randy, who by this time had taken some serious beatings from his rescuers.
"If you lose the dummy in the water, you gotta go get him," O'Connor said. "And don't grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him out of the house. That's not satisfactory. You're rescuing this guy. He's not a perp."
Fully instructed, the Dallas team climbed into the boat. The whistle blew and they took off, paddling like crazy. They beached the boat and charged up the berm, slipping and sliding in the sand, then stumbled down the other side.
After that, spectators sitting on the lakeshore heard the bang of gunshots, followed by the pings of bullets hitting metal targets. Then came the sound of a battering ram smashing down a door. Then the boom of a flash-bang grenade. Then the bangs of more gunshots.
A few moments later, the Dallas guys appeared at the top of the berm, carrying Randy on their shoulders, his face down, his arms and legs dangling lifelessly.
"He got shot!" squealed Katie Todd, a 7-year-old from Dare County, N.C.
"No, he didn't," said her mother, Janet Todd, suppressing a smile.
As the Dallas team stormed down the hill, sliding in the sand, the two guys in the back fell on their butts, causing poor Randy to bounce around like a rag doll.
"He did get shot!" shrieked Katie, looking horrified.
"It's just make-believe," her mother said, giving her a hug. "It's only make-believe."