by Guy Lerner
In this time of contrast and conflict, where experiences that repulse and rejoice live side by side, the lines that keep right and wrong apart are dangerously entangled. Never has this been clearer than in the days and weeks following the senseless acts of violence by man on man in New York last September.
This may read to you like rehashed sentiment, but I’m not talking about the evils of terrorism or the heroism of the millions who revolted, united, against it. What I saw was hardly sensational; it didn’t make any headlines, wasn’t cited as a crime against humanity, barely fuelled a protest. But it was real all the same.
* * * * *
I have a friend – let’s call him Mike. Mike’s a good guy, just like anyone else. He has a wife and two beautiful children, a house, a car and a mortgage. Every day Mike leaves his family in the morning and travels past the tree-lined avenues and parks where he lives to the grey city beyond, where he shares a small office with an assistant and his staff. He won’t return to his family until late in the evening, long after his children have gone to bed.
Mike is a public relations consultant. He spends his working life promoting large, wealthy companies that pay him a living wage to do so. It’s Mike’s job to make sure that all the other workers in the great grey city know about the companies he represents, and, if he does his job properly, regularly share a small part of their weekly wages with them.
Mike is no-one’s fool, he knows the way of the world. Making his customers successful buys security for his family, an education for his children, and a pleasant retirement for him and his wife. We would spend hours talking over his recent achievements, his daily struggles to better the work done the day before, his confidence in a system that allows him to live in comfort and peace with the people he loves and cares for.
I don’t see much of Mike anymore. He still drives to his office every morning, and comes home late at night, but he does so more out of habit, as a show of responsibility to his family, than of any ambition he may have had to be the best he can be. He tells me things are ok, “same old, same old”, but the passion that once lit up his eyes whenever we spoke about our lives is gone.
* * * * *
The other day I saw Mike at a local bar, nursing an ale, following the fortunes of his football team on the midday news. As close as he was to me then we may as well have been miles apart. He looked straight at me as I walked up to him, but I don’t think he recognised me, at least not as instantly as I had him.
I sat beside him and ordered us both another round. He didn’t say much at first; occasionally acknowledging my presence with a nod of appreciation for the drink I’d bought him.
What, I wondered, could be affecting this man’s life so painfully that he found solace in his isolation? Surely he couldn’t still be reeling from the terror in New York, even thought that’s when I first noticed a change in him? For Christ’s sake, that was nearly a year ago now, and besides, most of us have moved on with our lives since then. I told him as much, out of concern and frustration, but he just sipped on his ale and showed me a weak attempt at an apologetic smile.
As I was getting ready to leave, Mike put his hand on my shoulder and asked me, casually, if I was prepared for “when it happens again.” I looked at him as if he’d gone mad, which by then I was starting to believe he had.
He mistook my puzzled expression for an admission of guilt, and proceeded to tell me that less than a week after the Towers fell, he was approached by one of his largest and most reputable customer to help “strike the fear of God into those companies that think it can’t happen to them.”
He’s been hiding in fear of God ever since.
* * * * *
Mike was a first-hand witness to the crossing of the lines. Not only had he felt the stab of the planes as they punctured the heart of all he held to be true, but also the knife in his back that struck the fatal blow. For Mike there was no time to join a grieving world in the desperate aftermath, to look for answers to questions neither he nor anyone else would ever find. Time was money, and the more he wasted, the more he lost.
In Mike’s universe, the events of September 11 were little more than an angle for a campaign of profiteering that’s still with us today. Wherever we turn we’re bombarded with reminders of the horror we felt on that day, not in memoriam to those that died but as pitches by companies wanting us to buy their products to protect us from the world’s evils, glorified by the images that will haunt most of us for the rest of our lives.
All over the world, in boardrooms similar to those that were lost in the flames, men like Mike were hard at work looking for ways to use the intensity of terror to promote their wares. Disaster was suddenly a catch phrase for sales campaigns. Business was the Holy Grail, and the market was ripe for anyone selling themselves to protect it.
What hope have we if we allow ourselves to fall victim to the social cannibalism that eats away at the very fibre of morality we pretend to protect?
* * * * *
A short while ago I put down the phone, my eyes drowned in tears.
Last night, at five past nine, shortly after he parked his car in his driveway and set his briefcase on the kitchen floor, my friend Mike sat himself in his bedroom, closed the door, kissed his wife on the cheek, and shot himself in the head. Later, a policeman examining his body pulled a crumpled note from his hand. It was addressed to me.
“Thanks for the drink. M.”
* * * * *