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Resurrection

"Resurrection" Continued...

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

Muse didn't hear the words; he felt them. And the feeling arrived not as hope, but as certainty. Suddenly, he sat up straighter in the metal chair. His backbone stiffened. His will to resist returned.

"At no point did I not worry that I was going to die," he says. "But at that moment, I realized I had a Friend who had always been there but I never knew it. I knew I was not alone."

The next day, in the same room, a PDF lieutenant forced Muse to watch as soldiers beat a Colombian man to death. "You watch!" the lieutenant told Muse. "This is your future."

The soldiers drove their steel-toed boots into the Colombian's belly, kidneys, testicles, ribs. They stomped on his skull, ripping the flesh from his face. They ground their heels into his eye sockets.

Horrified, heart banging in his chest, Muse pleaded to God: "Please-Lord-please-Lord-help-him-help-him-help-him-don't-let-him-die-don't-let-him-die."

When the prisoner could no longer beg for his life but only moan softly, the lieutenant picked up a lug wrench, swung it like a baseball bat, and crushed the man's chest.

The next day at an internationally televised press conference, Noriega announced he had captured Kurt Frederick Muse, American spy. Then soldiers stuffed Muse in a paddy wagon and carted him to Carcel Modelo, a prison infamous for the fact that those who entered its gates were never seen alive again.

Immediately after Muse's arrest, the U.S. government had spirited his wife, Annie, and children, Kimberly and Erik, to safety in the United States. The family then relentlessly lobbied U.S. officials to protect Muse and to make sure he received a fair trial. Technically, Muse had committed treason and was a lawful prisoner. Still, he was a U.S. citizen. A series of providential communications, including a personal plea from Kimberly Muse, 15, caught the attention of George H.W. Bush, who had by then been elected president. Initially, Bush authorized Operation Acid Gambit, the rescue of Muse by Delta Force.

As an American, Muse was protected under the Panama Canal treaty. That meant U.S. officials were able to force Noriega to allow visits from a U.S. military doctor and attorney. For the next nine months, both men used their visits to reconnoiter the prison, passing intelligence to Delta. The doctor, Air Force Lt. Col. James Ruffer, also passed messages between Muse and his wife in the form of Scripture verses.

After further provocation from Noriega, including a rigged election, the murder of a political enemy, and the killing of a Marine Corps officer, President Bush wrapped Acid Gambit into a new mission: Operation Just Cause, the liberation of Panama.

In late 1989, a faction disloyal to Noriega attempted a coup. The PDF quickly put it down, tossed the traitors into Carcel Modelo, and blamed the U.S. government. Noriega then issued a warning: At the next hint of U.S. aggression, Kurt Muse would die.

Muse was sitting in his cell when a PDF soldier in camouflage face paint and full battle dress walked up and peered through the bars. In the corridor, the soldier set up a machine gun on a bipod stand, threaded in a bullet belt, and aimed the weapon at Muse's chest.

Muse was 100 percent certain his life was over. "Thinking you're going to die is totally different than knowing you're going to die," he said. Terror gripped him.

Smirking, the painted soldier stared Muse down. With one hand, he lifted the tail of the bullet belt then let it down slowly:

Click-click-click-click-click.

Again. Click-click-click-click-click.

The torment rattled Muse to his core. He crept into a darker part of the cell and lay down flat on his back on the ground, shaking uncontrollably. "My heart raced, and I prayed and prayed: 'I'm afraid, Lord. I'm terrified! I'm going to die! What do I do?'"

Muse isn't sure, but he thinks 30 minutes passed. Then, as suddenly as it had during his interrogation, a peace descended on his heart. "It was the same thing, the same message: 'Don't be afraid. I'm with you.'"

Muse took a deep breath and exhaled. An image came to him of old film clips, Jewish people in Hitler's concentration camps, walking calmly to their deaths. "I had never understood that," Muse says now. "I had always told myself that if it were me, I would charge the machine guns. I wouldn't go down without a fight."

But suddenly Muse understood the Holocaust victims completely. "I realized I was going to die, and there was no reason to fight. There was a certain quiet acquiescence to it."

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