2.1 - Firing Line
A generation or two ago we had war correspondents, ballsy journalists and photographers who slogged through jungles and deserts and city ruins to bring the country a glimpse of the horror that was unfolding overseas. These days we have war zone guided tours, with Army spin doctors taking a handful of loquacious walking suits on a spin through a stage-managed slice of the chaos. That was on the itinerary my first morning in Lawrence. The plan, as is typically the case, was to play along until I had a chance to slip away from the state security handlers and poke around. When I left, the other journalists were taking bets on which faction would kill me when I tried to do this. The smart money was on the UFJ mailing my heart back to my editor.
Keeping your head together in a crisis zone comes down to personal standards, including standards of self-care. That begins with an appropriate breakfast - in this case a few handfuls of dry granola, two strips of spicy beef jerky, a dried-out bear claw I bought somewhere around Cheyenne, a mug of spiked coffee and ten milligrams of benzedrene. Next, an equipment check. It’s wise to move light and I never bring anything I’m not willing to ditch. For a trip with a high likelihood of homicide, that’s a pair of memo books and pens, my creaky old Pardner and enough cash for a bribe if it comes to that. I also tucked my knife into my boot. It obviously won’t do me any good if I get into a fracas with a group of machine pistol-toting radicals, but it has utility when dealing with pushy journos.
Fifteen minutes later I was packed into an ill-maintained jeep along with three other journos and a pair of doughy agents from the Office of State and Interstate Safety. It was one of several mismatched vehicles headed for the edge of the inner perimeter, the firing line set up by OSIS security goons to keep the world safe from the terrifying protesters who had invaded the town. The hill leading to campus was lined with hastily-erected poles topped with FASTR sensors that beeped merrily as each vehicle passed. Top of the hill, we were met by a line of armed men standing in front of a light armored vehicle. The man on the outward-pointing light machine gun suggested that the purpose of this blockade was not to keep us safe from the radicals.
The guy waiting for us at the Memorial Union was the least likely representative of a military government I’ve ever encountered, which may have been the point all along. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years or a hundred-ten pounds, with slightly shaggy blond hair and a very light complexion. “Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the firing line. My name is Stuart and I’ll be walking you through the OSIS perimeter, after which we’ll return to the Union for an early lunch and a briefing on our plan of action for the coming weeks.”
The journos gathered there were a sorry lot, more like the aftermath of a Spring Break party than a gathering of professionals. Modern journos just don’t learn how to hold their liquor. The only one I could spot not trying to keep his breakfast down was a guy who looked an awful lot like Frederick Tomasson, probably out to relive the old days when he was respected by someone other than the Beltway warmongers. Not that I need another reason to stay away from him, but I’ve heard that he was one of the ones responsible for that rumor that I was high on ecstasy during the Iowa caucuses (which, incidentally, was totally false - it was mephedrone and I only took two caps the whole time I was there).
“I realize that, being journalists, your inclination is to probe around off the beaten path.” Stuart’s voice had the occasional upward lilt which didn’t do much for his air of authority. “May I remind you that the OSIS security forces are here for your benefit. While the main group of Union for Justice insurgents is fully contained, we know that they have many supporters in the community and we do not know the disposition of these individuals.”
“Plus the Briggs,” slurred someone from the group.
“Yes, the followers of Mr. Brigg. Um...they are mostly active in the southern part of campus, but a few groups have been spotted in this general area. They usually stay well clear of the perimeter and state checkpoints. If you do encounter a group, stay calm, don’t antagonize them and try to bide your time until a security group passes by. Oh, and please don’t assume that you’re safe just because you’re Caucasian or because you were born in the United States. Most of the, uh...bad encounters fit those groups.”
The follow-up question really should have been “Why spend so much effort monitoring a bunch of slacktivists and so little watching the xenophobic thugs who’ve been breaking windows and faces?” That question wasn’t going to come from me. I need to save all my credit to avoid the beating that’s on the horizon.
“All right, let’s get moving.” Stuart threw a little gesture and we were suddenly flanked by security goons. “First, a word on the enemy’s disposition. What we know about the UFJ insurgents is spotty, it’s based on estimates from a small number of videos and still photographs, the situation moved too quickly for aerial monitoring. There are approximately 150 to 200 insurgents occupying Strong and Wescoe Halls. Known armament includes fifteen to twenty assault-style semi-automatic rifles, twenty to thirty manual- or semi-automatic shotguns, twenty to thirty long guns of other types, and an undetermined number of revolvers and semi-automatic handguns. None of their weapons are capable of reaching the inner perimeter line. They do not have any hostages, but several of them were carrying large bags and we have not excluded the possibility of explosives, which is why we have not yet attempted to breach the occupied buildings.”
Few of the journos were paying attention, and not solely because of the hangovers. The first thing you learn when you start on the war beat is how to know when you’re being handled. And this was amateur hour - a lot of shitty old information tarted up with some shiny new fictions to explain why they had yet to conclude the siege.
If nothing else, the smoke-blowing phase gave me a chance to probe for a way to get deeper into the secure zone. The armored vehicle was enough to stop cars but there really weren’t enough men there to stop every ingress. Truthfully, once you got past the initial terror of the blockade it was a pretty sorry barricade, not hard to get around. But Stuart and his people were watching, and as much as I doubted that they’d beat me in front of the other journos I didn’t feel like gambling my bones on that presumption.
And that was when that bastard Frederick Tomasson rolled on over. The way he was trundling over, you’d think we were friends, or perhaps compatriots in an ever marginalized occupation. I’d assumed that a speed-head outlaw journalist would be beneath him, or maybe that was just my hope. But there he was, the pudgy elder messenger of the Washington elite, coming right at me with a duplicitous grin underneath his tightly trimmed gray moustache.
“Atticus Gainsborough. Didn’t think I’d ever see you again after Iowa.”
“The DEA still lets me travel.”
“That’s not what I meant, and I never gave any credence to those rumors. You know the Beltway, it’s like high school.”
“Except the head dick carries a different kind of football.” I tried not to look at Fred, hoping he’d go hunt for easier prey if I didn’t pay him his due.
“You know, it’s been twenty years since I’ve been to a war zone.” Fred paused for a moment to give me an opportunity to supplicate and knock my head against the ground. “It must be very strange, for your first time as a war correspondent to be on our own soil.”
“Terrible sign of the times.”
“Of course, it was eminently foreseeable.”
“I must have missed the column where you predicted a leftist rebellion.”
“Well, maybe not with such precision.” Fred had a well-practiced smile that, after so many years, was a reflexive response to any hint of criticism. “I should have said that I foresaw that some form of unrest would break out. The roots have been growing for decades.”
“Really?” I shouldn’t have humored him, but he was clearly going to launch into one of his explanations regardless of my response. If I was going to be his audience, at least I could be a heckler. “Seems like this started a year ago. Karlyle starts his little sci-fi voter purge, a bunch of the victims get mad, start protesting, one of the groups gets mad enough to turn up at a protest with weapons, the locals freak out, the governor locks the place down. Unless you want to start with Nixon courting the authoritarian vote, I don’t see where you get decades.”
“Atticus, you’re a solid writer, but you’ll never be a great journalist with a thought process like that.”
My right hand was creeping towards my boot, but I stopped it with my left. “You think I’m wrong?”
“Let’s say it’s...a narrow perspective. Electoral Integrity was perhaps the immediate cause - the fuse, let’s say - but that was only a trigger to the powder, the charge that’s detonating in front of us. That charge is a paradigm shift in the nature of the world. Our once-tall world is becoming a wide world. Do you understand this concept?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen the name of your upcoming book.”
“The widening of the world is unquestionably good, but the benefits manifest to different people at different times. The Union for Justice, these young minorities, have suffered more than most from the tall society. Many of them - I’ve spoken to plenty of them, you know - eagerly anticipated the development of the wide society. But it’s been very rough on them, more so than most. And this is a response to that, a sort of especially painful contraction in the birth of a better society.”
“You figured this all out on your own?”
“I interview people. Just on this trip alone, I spoke with the driver and the desk clerk at the hotel. Both of them had some fascinating insights on the wide economy and their frustration that the federal government took so long to embrace it as an official...oh...maybe we can pick this up at lunch later.”
That was how our conversation concluded - Frederick saw some other journo who hadn’t yet heard the gospel of global widening and went forth to spread the Good News. Maybe I should thank him for it. After all, it was his gladhanding that gave me an opening to slip away.