Monday, March 10, 2008

Life During Wartime

At night I am afraid. The planes loom overhead and I hear them coming in close to land. We’re on the flight path and sometimes it feels as if I can almost touch their bellies.

As I lay there in my bed in the dark I hear them in the last rush of the day, one, then another, then another, trying to beat the noise curfew at 10.30pm. The mail plane is the last and the loudest of them all, rumbling with its load like something from a World War Two movie. It sounds so primitive, so old.

My eyes are closed as I try to turn myself from them towards sleep, but I see these planes in my mind’s eye surging down from the sky, bursting through the walls, splitting everything apart, destroying my home, my family, nothing but flames and volume and cries.

I open my eyes and feel my heart beating in my chest.

I’m scared and nothing is happening. The world is quiet.

I don’t know many people who do not admit to this fear once they get talking, this fear of the sky and the planes above them. One day, the aircraft drone, a bad thing might happen again.

I get this feeling on trains too. This fear of anybody Middle Eastern looking with a bag.

My three-year-old son is beside me and I wonder if I should leave the train carriage as a man with a beard and an Arabic novel enters and sits? If my fears of being irrational, racist, whatever, are useless to spend time second-guessing? Get out of there. Save your child. Forget your ego, your philosophy, your morals, your frigging manners. They don’t count.

I know I am not the only one who thinks this way on trains. I teach writing and my students sometimes show me essays about this fear and others. It is common now: planes, trains, bombs, the little clouds in our hearts that mushroom up out of nowhere.

I see the images on a news website that accompanies my email address. The ones that talk about the war on terror and the threats we have received, the arrests, the plots that been foiled for now.

I see the images of soldiers, backlit and poised, kneeling with hi-tech weaponry. The images of protectors in balaclavas dropping like Spiderman from the high heels of our glass skyscrapers. The images of the men who will save us from whatever it is. The heat seeking cameras, the aerial views at night, the surveillance grain, the auras that are strangely ectoplasmic, even spiritual.

This does not make me feel safe. This does not make me feel ‘good’. They mostly look like men in a Hollywood movie that does not seem quite real.

You see, we know the real story already and where it lurks. We know that there are other men out there with nothing more than suits and knives and something in their backpacks. Alone, with a watch and a mobile phone: three or four of them dotted around the city, maybe five - maybe just one.


Our cities are on terror alert. Should I catch the train? What can I really do lying in bed listening to these sounds from the sky? But wait for it.

The other day something weird happened to me. On a train, middle of the day, this guy sitting there, legs apart - an attitude - fondling a very sharp tomahawk, stroking the blade. It was a homemade implement. The handle had a sharp edge, so it that it doubled as a dagger. Yes, he looked Middle Eastern. Was he terrorist? No. Of course not. I knew that even then. Just a nut case or someone going somewhere to do something horrible. We got off at the same station, no on else but me and him a step or two behind me on the stairs, my heart racing like all hell. I pretended to go to the ticket box and ask about a weekly pass. When I saw he had gone I told the man behind the counter what had happened, but he didn’t really know what to do. The guy wasn’t on the train anymore. He’d gone.

When I got home I rang the police. They took the details. I gave them a thorough description. But would they have found him? Where did he go? What did he do? I doubt anyone knows.

Be alert, not alarmed, the slogan says. Dial this number. (What number? Do you remember it? Does anyone?). Our leader casts out the warnings, our cities were/are threatened, we got ‘them’ this time.

And yet the law is threatened too as our civil liberties are eroded. But civil liberties are more than just laws, they’re feelings too, don’t you see? Feelings about how we move and relate. About a society that is open not closed. Confident not frightened.

Shoot to kill? Well the only one I know of who got shot in that kind of scenario was an innocent man in London after the event had been and gone. Haven’t the police enough powers already? Haven’t they got enough? Is the man who got shot here dangerous, or just another man who got shot? Is it right for a supposedly ‘just’ society to imprison men without charging them, to imprison them and crush them in chambers of isolation that goes against the grain of anything remotely decent?

Sometimes though I walk the streets and think about my children and how anybody who would hurt a child has already abrogated their humanity. How anybody who is willing to kill children should be exterminated. Come near my child and I will kill you, I think. No hesitation, no regrets. It gets so intense I can almost taste the blood in my mouth, feel the desire to hit someone and hurt them.

Maybe this is the war on civilisation at the heart of what terror is. This hatred that rises in me as easy as a breeze, that makes me want to annihilate them all. I can’t even get to grips with it in the end. My freedom of speech on this matter is now an act of sedition against whatever I used to dream of, what I used to think of as the best of me. I don’t even know what is right anymore.

- Mark Mordue

*Story written some time in 2005/06. Never published. The market for menace and moral ambiguity in writing is more limited in the media, where positive messages or outcomes or identities are almost invariably preferred. No troubling dreams allowed into the ether, no destabilizing strangeness.

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