Monday, August 31, 2009

War


"Dad, wake up".

I jolted upright and glanced at the clock. 7:50 AM. My alarm hadn't gone off. What the...? T-Bone, my fourteen year old son, stood in front of me, wearing the genuine US Army camouflage jacket we'd picked from a buddy who frequents military supply auctions.

Twenty minutes later, T-Bone, E (just turned thirteen), A-Rock (sixteen), and A-Rock's buddy James (all decked out in camo) were in the van. Lots of excited chit-chat...but underneath it all, there was an undercurrent of tension. We were all thinking it (except James, not prone to Bachmanian flights of dramatic fancy)...it just hadn't been brought into the open yet.

We are elite. We are the Overlords. We have a reputation to defend. We have a war to win; and winning it is up to us, and only us. If we fail, our whole team fails. If we succeed, our whole team succeeds. It is break or be broken now...and we will break them.

By 9:15 AM, after a McDonald's breakfast, we'd arrived at TNT Paintball, a half hour outside of Victoria. I'd called ahead - a group of 40 kids and parents were coming, plus a couple of dozen more drop ins. We were the first ones there.

"This is good", I said, as we picked out a corner of the barracks. "It gives us time to get in the zone. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae the night before the final battle, when they were all washing up and polishing their armour, focused and calm".

"Hey Dad", E piped up. "Did you know there's no evidence that Ephialtes the herdsman actually betrayed the Spartans and showed the Persians where the mountain pass was, or that he even existed?"

Not again, not E and his weird tangents. "What do you want, a videotape?", I shot back. "It was two and half millenia ago, and the Greeks have been talking about it ever since. That's probably as much proof as you could hope for. Anyway, let's focus".

This was serious, after all. We had been three times before. And each time, we - the four or five of us - had completely dominated, even over the 20-something-year-old ringers who go all the time and have all their own gear. I had even called ahead to alert the ref that we all needed to be on the same team.

"We're an elite squad of commandos", I explained.

"Oh yeah?", said the guy.

"Yeah. We don't split up".

"Well, how many people in your party?"

"Five. Myself plus a thirteen, fourteen, and sixteen year old. And my sixteen year old's buddy", I said.

"Gotcha". He sounded like he was about to laugh. Laugh at the Overlords? We were superheroes about to save the freaking universe! "Well, sure you can be on the same team", he said.

(More to come).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ghosts of an Ancient Past


I'll be honest - I want to meet my ancestors.

I wonder who they were, what they looked like, how they lived, and what physical or personality traits (due to genetics, that is) we share.

And it is a funny thing...in addition to German, I have Scottish and Ukrainian ancestry, but I feel no affinity with those lines. Like, nothing. I feel as "Ukrainian" as I do Aztec, as Scottish as I do Maori. There is just nothing there, even when I try to make myself feel some resonance...

For some reason, I only feel German, and only ever have. Maybe it is because my grandpa - whose parents immigrated to Canada from the Magdeburg area - was a practical, sensible man; the world seemed to make sense when he would talk. But I have no clue.

What I do know is that - I don't know how to explain this exactly - I feel like I have glimpses inside of me, and they all seem to be set in northern Europe. They include fires at night, chilly temperatures, a certain kind of piny, smoky scent in the cool air, northern skies and constellations, Germanic sounding words, beautiful long songs, and stories, and hard decisions, and furs, and forests which look just like those I've seen in that part of the world...and the glimpses seem to come from a long, long time ago.

One part of the emotional content of those glimpses is the feeling that the world makes sense. For a fleeting moment, I can see and smell and feel something...feel that I loved and was loved; protected and was protected; respected, and was respected back; and the animals and forests and stars, and my people, all fit together. I understand it all...

Another part is a feeling of vigilance, a kind of enervating fear if you like - of predators, human or animals, who might harm those I am responsible for protecting. Another part is some sense of heroism or glory...And I have a woman, a wife, who is all mine, and I'd give my life for her...and we have children.

Do I sound mad? I am not worried if I do, for I feel that I have no control over those glimpses. They are just part of who I am, and who I have always been, and I cannot make them go away. So mad or not, it doesn't matter.

The truth is...I don't know what to make of these glimpses. They seem real, but I suppose, cannot be...They come to me far more often than I would ever wish to admit to; and the truth is, if I could, I would go to that place, and stay there. But I can't.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vanity and Morality, Part One

It is easy, in the comfort of our own living rooms, to imagine ourselves to be of incorruptible integrity. We would never take a bribe to allow something illegal or evil to occur. We would never stab a friend in the back for our own gain. We would never lie or cheat or steal, maim or kill. We would never take money to injure someone, or work as prostitutes, or allow someone "to treat us that way".

The truth is that we are very fortunate to be able to indulge in such flattering delusions. Most of us live in rich, stable democracies, where we take the rule of law for granted. For us, "hunger" is when we decide to go on our trendy "cleansing fast" for a day, which we then proudly tell everyone about, rather than the involuntary, prolonged, health-destroying agony that it is for millions of others. Many of us are treated pretty fairly at work, and receive fair compensation for our labour. The desperate situations that so many of our fellow human beings have existed in are almost unimaginable to us.

Put us in those dire, desperate circumstances...massively circumscribe our choices... inflict pain on us, or on those we love...and what would we do? Use your imagination, and you will find that there are actually very few "bad things" that you would not do, given certain variables. In fact, you will even find that in extreme situations, many of those bad things begin to appear very much like good things.

Say your child is kidnapped. You live in an area of the world where the police are corrupt and will not help you. You and your friends then are able to capture the kidnapper, who will not tell you where he is keeping your child. Each hour he does not tell, is another hour in which your child may suffer or perish - from hunger, from an assault by others, etc. What do you?

You - to use the technically precise term - torture. You tie him up, beat him, put a Bic lighter to his arm, break his kneecaps, waterboard him. Whatever. You do what it takes to save your child.

In that situation, your choices were radically circumscribed. The kidnapper would not reveal the whereabouts of your child without being tortured. So, the result of refusing to torture the kidnapper would be that you allow your child to be tortured and probably murdered. The result of torturing the kidnapper is that you protect your child from torture and probable murder. Either way, you are at least facilitating torture. So your choice boils down to, which one of these two people gets tortured?

It is remarkable that there are people out there so detached from reality, that they would listen to this little hypothetical and say something like: "The ends don't justify the means" (which certainly in this case qualifies as a thought-terminating cliche); or "There would have to be a better way than torture...".

No, in fact, sometimes, there are no better ways. That's the point. You live in Vermont or Queensland, not in a village in Africa where your child actually was kidnapped by some warlord's henchman. What if you did?

Once we get going, it becomes easy to imagine situations in which we would steal food, push people off bridges, lie, bribe, take bribes, prostitute ourselves, all sorts of rotten things.

Here's another example. You're a cop in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Your annual salary is $1500 (that is actually the average annual wage for a Mexican policeman). One day, a representative from a notorious drug gang contacts you. He tells you that he will pay you $10,000 a year if you simply turn a blind eye to what happens at a certain cantina. If you refuse to cooperate, you will be murdered. You have a wife and kids at home. You want to live. You're also getting a pittance, risking your life trying to enforce the law, when you know that the same drug lords have high-ranking politicians all through the government, and other cops, on their payroll, too. In short, there is nothing, on your own, that you can do to stop the drug gang. You don't know if your own police chief is also on the take; if you report this to him, who knows if he won't tell the gangmembers, and they'll kill you?

In this case, which is the real-life choice faced by quite a number of Mexican cops right now, what choice do you have? And what do you say if your contact one day says to you, "I need you to take this bag to la farmacia and give it to 'Roberto'"? Do you say no?

Say no, and you die, only to be replaced by someone who will say yes anyway.

Say yes, and you survive, and are able to buy your wife pretty things, and give your children more opportunities. Say yes, and you can at least try to compensate for your own corruption by doing good in other ways. Say yes, and rise through the ranks...maybe one day you'll have the power to stop the very sort of corruption which you've been involved in. Say yes, and maybe you can save up and move to America, where such corruption is rarer. But if you say yes, you're a bribe-taker, a drug runner, and you are now protecting an organization which tortures and murders people.

Your conscience says, "If all of us stood up and said 'no' to these thugs, we could defeat them". The problem is that you live in a real world, and that will not happen. There's no way to make it happen. It is just not going to happen. In this real-life situation, the cost of idealism is death.

What do you do?