Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Fortress View

On the first of three airplanes yesterday, I was packed into a seat next to a man in a corduroy blazer who explained he was once CEO of a corporation in the auto industry, got sick of making "other people" rich, and decided to start his own private business.  He did not explain what line of business he is in, but I saw him peeking through some "confidential" data that included graphs and illustrations of changes in cells of some kind.

My current reading is Salman Rushdie's recently published memoir, Joseph Anton.  The book recounts his years living in hiding, soon after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses when the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran called for him to be assassinated by any faithful muslim.  The security measures undertaken to protect his life were quite extensive and completely up-ended the life of an established best-selling novelist. 

The passage I read during takeoff included this:

"If you succumb to the security description of the world," he told himself, "then you will be its creature forever, its prisoner."  The security worldview was based on the so-called worst-case analysis. But the worst-case analysis of crossing a road is that there was a chance you would be hit by a truck, and therefore you should not cross the road.  But people crossed roads every day and were not hit by trucks.  This was a thing he would have to remember.  There were only varying degrees of insecurity.  He had to go on crossing roads.

The business executive next to me recognized Salman Rushdie's name.  "Let me ask you a question," he said, eyes narrowing behind his narrow eyeglasses.  "Is that book any good?"

As a matter of fact, I was enjoying it very much, and talked a bit about the subject matter: his daily life in hiding while defending his name and reputation amidst the complex arguments that exploded subsequent to the fatwa (a term the business executive also remembered): was this an attack on fundamental human freedoms, such as the freedom to write and read, the freedom to discuss religions and their leading figures in historic terms, or did Rushdie have it coming, as if the state-sponsored terrorism presented in this extra-judicial "verdict" could be sanctioned by a modern society?  It was a very dangerous moment for the west and in some ways not a proud one.

The executive filled up at the first mention of Iran.  He launched into a long harangue about muslims.  It was ugly enough and violent enough that I could not help looking around the cabin for any obvious signs that a muslim might overhear him.  The only good muslim was a dead one, in this man's opinion.  And that included the current president of the United States -- the executive did not even bother to mention he believes Obama is a muslim, that goes without saying.  "Disgusting people," he said.  All of them.  All of them. He included a valorous anecdote about him confronting some Libyan citizens on an international flight, shortly after the Lockerbie massacre, warning them that Reagan "can and surely will bomb you into oblivion."  He smiled to himself and said, "They seemed alarmed."

Then he wanted to know:  who was paying for Rushdie's protection?  Again, a suspicious tone.  (Answer: the British government paid for Scotland Yard's time and resources, officers volunteered their time, and Rushdie had to find places to live and pay the rent.  When cleared to purchase a house, Rushdie bought a very expensive house large enough to accommodate a security team -- and then installed a safe room and a system of panic buttons, at the insistence of the police.) 

Then my traveling companion said, "I'd rather give a bullet than take one," and he was off on a new monologue about the world being full of creeping hordes of scum who cannot be reasoned with because they are not rational and want nothing good, the only thing you could do was segregate and destroy all groups of people who did not care for you.

There is something even worse than what Rushdie described as "the security view" of the world, a world we had both just visited, this executive and me: a world where you take off your shoes and belt and stand with your arms over your head as a machine takes a nude x-ray photo of you and you then get patted down anyway and you perhaps feel awkward and wrong about saying "thank you" after being subjected to such treatment.

Yes, it can get even darker than that.  It might be called "the fortress view" of the world.  Unlike "the security view," in the fortress view there will never be enough security.  There can only be force and surveillance and retreat behind high walls to protect whatever privileges you can claim for yourself.

There was no mistaking, however, in the softness of his voice and the wounded gaze with which he swiped his surroundings, never looking at the man to whom he spoke, the fear.

At the end of that flight, he stood up in the aisle and reached up for his suitcase, stowed in the overhead compartment, sending an elbow into the face of a female United States Army soldier who had been standing there.  She stepped back and he said, without looking back in her direction, "Excuse me. " She nodded patiently.  He never noticed who she was.

I wondered what he would have thought if he had elbowed a soldier in the nose and caused her to bleed.  As it was, he bade me goodnight and made his way down the aircraft, pulling his suitcase behind him into a dark world with enemies everywhere.

[Image: The Belogradchik Fortress in Bulgaria.]


Craig Handel said...

As we all know-we deal with the world by creating a narrative that enables us to cope with what we don't understand. The stories we tell ourselves define who we are and our relationship to society, the environment, the cosmos...
Thanks for the story Algernon- I'll be telling it to myself in the days to come and I believe the world will be better for it. I'm glad you were there to observe, process and pass it down the line. Keep up the great work/life.

Hal Johnson said...

Yeah, you would just love my workplace. As a half-assed libertarian with some liberal leanings, I'm known as a "flaming liberal." I just try to have fun with it.