in the post of the smoke
there is quiet
the roiling has subsided
busy has returned
people are the same
they are quiet
in cold germany there was quiet
the streets full of busy
with signs for speed limits
and weight limits for trucks
***** and tanks
***** and guns
the peace of the soldier at attention
the soldier who speaks no german
the people were quiet
the poster on the pole
young male black leather
“Ich rauch dem”
“you don’t know what we’re capable of”
BOOTHBAY HARBOR, ME. 18 September 2001. The scientist sat in the laundromat, watching the world go by. He was waiting for the washing machine to finish the band uniform that he would need to wear for the parade and rally, scheduled to go through the center of town and end at the YMCA that weekend.
There was world going by to watch on this Tuesday. Like there hadn’t been for most of the preceding week. He still remembered, he still felt, when the Director of his research institute sent a message to staff, a week (“you’re kidding!”) ago, “this is not a joke”. He remembered spending most of the rest of the day watching as the still-fledgling internet buckled and broke under the strain of millions of people trying to figure out what the fuck was going on in New York City. He remembered finally giving up and tuning in to the local National Public Radio station, which, like most other news outlets, was all World Trade Center, all the time. He remembered Alexander Haig, not for claiming that he was in charge, but for vowing that We the People of these United States of America would get whoever was responsible for this atrocity. “You”, he said, addressing the then-unknown perpetrators, “don’t know what we’re capable of”.
The scientist had already had a taste of what We the People were capable of, when he had ventured to pray for those same perpetrators at a vigil on the evening of the 11th, to pray that We the People ask ourselves what We had done to draw this attack upon ourselves, and was nearly lynched on the spot. He had not heard that various preachers had already asked this question, and proclaimed their answer: We the People had brought this on ourselves because we had not exterminated gays.
There were other people in the laundromat at this lunch hour. Across the street, the parking lot of the town’s supermarket was full of cars and shopping carts; the traffic in groceries was, well, like it had been before, you know. A normal business day, after a week of nearly-complete shutdown.
It was all being conducted sotto voce. Mainers, and New Englanders generally, conducted themselves with greater reserve than other folk in the USA; a Californian in that group tended to sound like an out-of-control foghorn blaring on a clear and sunny summer day. But the reserve, the quiet, with which people were going through the motions of this day was uncanny. It was as if a gray smoke, a tower smoke, had settled on the town, a gray smoke with an oppressive weight like that of a pressure cooker lid, screwed down tight.
He suddenly remembered when he had had a similar feeling – when he had visited what was then West Germany in 1986. The place still had an occupied feel. Especially the road signs directed at military vehicles. Vehicles owned mostly by the United States military, faced off against the Soviets and their East German clients a few hundred kilometers to the east. He remembered being there on Hallowe’en, and seeing no evidence of what in the USA is a major party scene. Instead, the sight of folk solemnly trooping to churches on All Saints Day, and then to the cemeteries, to tidy up what could already have served as clean rooms for spacecraft. The reserve of the Germans he met on this occasion made the Mainers and Massachusetts folk that he knew look like Californians.
But there were signs. Signs of defiance.
Such as the inscription on the house in the center of Münster: “This house was bombed to the ground by the Allies in 1943. It has been reconstructed brick for brick.”
Such as the university professor who proclaimed, during a coffee hour, “We will rebuild German science.” (Counterbalanced by another who, after swearing the scientist to secrecy, showed him one of his prized, and strictly illegal, possessions: a 1930s-era Universitätsstudentin für Hitler [“University students for Hitler”] propaganda poster. No, he was not a Nazi; in fact, he had been either from the USA or England, the scientist had forgotten which. The professor’s point was that university education did not, and does not, guarantee wisdom, or immunity from herd thinking.)
Such as the advertising poster on a pole – one of those bearing weight limit signs for trucks and tanks. A poster that pictured a young tough in a black leather jacket, oozing defiance, and selling cigarettes.
Ich rauch dem.
I smoke them. I smoke them.
Get in my face, and I will smoke you!
“You don’t know what we’re capable of”, Alexander Haig ranted on the radio, while the broken Internet yielded nothing.
The washing machine clattered to a stop, jerking the scientist back to the present. He fetched his band uniform and marched it over to the dryer. His hands trembled as he bundled the wet fabric into the drum, not from feeling the damp but from feeling the dread, of what would overtake his country when the gray smoke lid blew off. He considered the prayer meeting, and what it had revealed: the extent to which reason and tolerance had already been blown away by rage and the thirst for revenge. As if disco dancers and midnight cowboys had motive to hijack airliners and fly them into skyscrapers. He remembered words of Abraham Lincoln:
All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
“Whatever else this bin Laden character is”, the scientist thought to himself, “he’s a genius in this. He’s spotted that my country has no capacity for introspection.” He thought yet again of his prayer and its nearly-disastrous outcome. “With one operation, a tiny blip on the scale of acts of war, he can cause my country to destroy itself by slapping itself silly, and in the process wiping out, for all the world to see, the last vestiges of what it thought it stood for. And”, he stared at the tumbling clothes in the dryer, “by goose-stepping in this parade on Saturday, by playing these damned patriotic marches and cheering on patriotic speeches, Mr Goebbels, I brand myself with the same demonic brand as everyone else. Way to go, Cassandra.”
The dryer tumbled on, unconcerned.