Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Beadle's Nightmare

“He talked about the brutality of the killers, but no one believed him. The Germans are human beings, people said, even if the Nazis aren’t. The more convincing Moshe the beadle tried to be, the less seriously he was taken. He has suffered too much, people said, so much that he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Then he would lose his temper. “Listen to me!” he would shout. “I’m telling you the truth, I swear it! On my life I swear it, and on yours! If I’m lying, how come I’m alone? Where is my wife and children? What about the others, your former neighbors? Where are they? I’m telling you, they killed them. If you don’t believe me, you’re crazy.” Poor guy, everyone said. Raving mad. Which only made him angrier. “You’re irresponsible, I’m telling you! What happened to us will happen to you. If you want to look away, go ahead! But if I’m lying, why do I say Kaddish morning and night? And why do you say, Amen’?” That much was true. He recited the prayer for the dead ten times in the morning and ten times in the evening, attending every service, rushing from synagogue to synagogue seeking a minyan so he could say another Kaddish, and yet another. But the people were deaf to his pleas. I liked him and often kept him company, but I, too, could not bring myself to believe him. I listened, staring at his feverish face as he described his torment, but my mind resisted. Alacia is not exactly the end of the world, I told myself. It’s only a few hours from here. If what he’s saying were true, we would have heard.”

- Elie Wiesel – From “Memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea”

I went to sleep when it all began; when I woke up fifty years later it was all over.

I didn’t feel like I’d aged more than a day when I woke to the new reality. But as I surveyed the landscape around me I saw that everything else had. America was old, worn, defeated. The War on Terror had ended almost five decades before, and the terrorists had won.

The vote had been taken just as I fell asleep. Then, in the night, one president’s call to stay the course had been rejected. American troops had left Iraq. The retreat was hasty, yet orderly, a masterpiece in American logistical skill. A new administration was subsequently voted into power, thanks to an alliance of militant pacifists, political opportunists, conservatives desperate to maintain their privileged positions, liberals longing to rekindle the old glory, trade unionists, feminists, career bureaucrats and civil servants, war-weary patriots, grieving mothers, secular humanists, intellectuals, journalists, preachers, philosophers, and poets. It was a powerful alliance.

For the first two years after the strategic withdrawal the decision seemed to be vindicated. There were terrorist events, but none that couldn’t be answered with a few blunt political communiqués or editorials. The occasional event became acceptable. Better, it was thought, to endure small sufferings than to expend the free world’s human capital and treasure in a protracted war. Two thousand, nine hundred and eighty six American deaths in Iraq had become the point from which no sane politician or leader would stray. The word war had itself become passé.

For fairness sake it must be said that the environment wasn’t entirely passive. The blunt communiqués were sometimes followed by elaborate law enforcement operations. They would last about a month or so, long enough for everyone to forget what had caused the carnage, and then end, without result. The strategy worked. The occasional deaths at the hands of some group of masked insurgents had lost their power to terrorize. Some, called religious fanatics, said it was the lemming effect, but in a world where almost everything and everyone had come to accept the new reality the message fell on deaf ears. People, in strange, almost un-knowable ways, seemed to feel secure. The political messages of eternal peace and prosperity resonated. No longer was there a constant drone of American casualties filling the airwaves. The “events,” as they had come to be known, found their way into the collective consciousness only by way of the back pages of America’s great newspapers, usually between the obituaries and the religion page. The nightly newscasts were entirely silent. The less said about them, the better, was the order of the day.

A new language, fashion, and set of euphemisms found its way into daily life and discourse. After a busy day at the office, for example, business executives could stop and have something old like a gin and tonic or something more potent, more up to date with the times, if the day had been especially taxing. Bali bombs they were called. There were Bali Bombs on the rocks, Bali Bombs straight up, and Bali Bombs with a twist. There was something to suit every taste. Faux suicide bomb outfits were all the rage, modeled seductively by anorexic supermodels on the runways of Paris. The designers competed vigorously for what had become an exploding marketplace of consumers. Oprah and other mega-stars devoted entire shows to the phenomenon, which had come to be known as “terrorist chic.” The terrorists and insurgents also found their way into popular entertainment, particularly movies and television. There was even a sitcom about life in a terrorist cell that skyrocketed in the Nielsen ratings. At first libertarians protested that the bounds of decency had been breached by the show’s producers, but gave up their protests shortly after being reminded that Hogan’s Heroes had been enormously popular in conservative America only twenty years after Bergen-Belsen was liberated. “It’s supply and demand,” they said. We’re just giving America what it wants. The ratings prove it.”

Lost in the tide of optimism and prosperity of the two years since the strategic withdrawal, though, was the undercurrent of events as they bubbled to the surface while the good news was being reported. The euphoria of the age was about to be shattered by a series of rapid-fire events so ferocious that the whole world would eventually be stunned into submission.

The reign of terror began when the occasional terrorist attacks around the world became daily events. It began in the middle of the night, in Iraq, during Ramadan. There, from Basra to Baghdad, the sickening sound of bombs detonating broke the silence of what should have been a beautiful new day. Thousands died. Then, the terror swept, from east to west, from country to country. Athens, Rome, Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Dublin, all of Europe was in flames. Like a prize fighter dazed not only by the suddenness of the blow, but also the heretofore unseen strength of its opponent, the continent reeled. The bombs exploded, like the anvil chorus, and desperate officials tried to respond. But it was no use. Europe was even less prepared than America to deal with such events. All that could be done was to put out the fires and count the dead, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Dawn broke on America that day with officials frantically trying to shut down the major cities. The red flag was hoisted, warning Americans that risk of attack was severe and imminent. New York was virtually shut down. Attempts were made to secure Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and other large cities. Airports were locked down. Political leaders huddled, caught between the national need for self-preservation and the pleas for help coming from Europe. Anxious minutes became anxious hours, yet nothing happened. America, it appeared, had been for some reason spared.

For the next three weeks Europe shook uncontrollably. The violent upheaval continued unabated, with no end in sight. International governing agencies were powerless to stop it. America, which had long since abandoned Europe and the Middle-East, rolled further into its defensive cocoon, believing that was its only hope. Thousands upon thousands of fires lit up the night skies of Europe’s once great cities. Plumes of smoke rose in columns reaching miles above even the wispy cirrus clouds that had been so prominent in the days before the attacks began.

While everyone knew who was masterminding the attacks, no group publicly claimed responsibility. They were too busy meting out “justice for grievances too long unheard” to negotiate. The strategy became clearer as the days of terror passed. Destroy, then negotiate for what was left. The attacks continued for another month. Casualties now numbered in the millions. Then, the ultimatum came: Capitulate or die! The details of the ultimatum were even more chilling. The terrorists warned they had far more nuclear capability than anyone had ever imagined. And, they had the human means, thousands of martyrs, willing to deliver them anywhere, any time.

And so it was that Europe fell, becoming the Federated States of the Northern Islamic Republic. Within months, with a huge stockpile of chemical weapons at its disposal and the means to deliver them anywhere in the world, the terrorists spread their tentacles to the east.

Less than a year after it all started the first nuclear attack came. Moscow was destroyed by a hydrogen bomb launched from Iran. From the west, Islamic armies swept in, from Iran. Syrian armies swept south. Six months later, with Russia and its nuclear arsenal firmly in their grasp and a monopoly on the world’s great oil fields, the terrorists set their sights to the west. “We now have thousands of warheads and we will use them unless you, the Great Satan, accede to our demands.” The nightmare scenario, the one no right-minded person ever thought was possible, was now in its final stages.

America’s first response was firm. “Americans,” the President said, “will never surrender to terror.” The answer to her terse statement came within days. Missiles, bearing megatons of death rained down. The first hit in the heartland. In a matter of minutes Chicago was gone. Then came New York, Boston, Atlanta, the cities of the west. A retaliatory strike was ordered and completed, but the terrorists continued their campaign, undeterred. Megaton was met with megaton in what became a great test of wills. Finally, after three days, fearing that all would be lost unless the terrorist demands were met, America agreed to the terms of surrender. Americans were allowed to live, as one of the Islamic Federated Republics. The Great Satan had fallen.

The inevitable purges followed. The fears that left wingers and intellectuals would be targeted proved, at first, to be unfounded. The Islamists well understood who their real enemies were and set about immediately to destroy them. Fundamentalist Christians, neo-conservatives, and “heartlanders” were targeted, then expunged. The rest of society accepted the purges as a necessary evil. The same thinking that applied to Europe in the late 1930’s and 40’s became the prevailing thought of what was once America. Survival became the order of the day.

This was the reality I woke up to almost fifty years after it all started. I’d gone to sleep, gotten caught up in a nightmare, and it clung to me bone and sinew even now in my waking hours. I felt an inner need to cry as a made my way to the living room window, but stifled it. “There’s nothing left to cry for,” I muttered. I stood, gazing through the frost on the pane, wondering if the nightmare would ever end. Off to my south I could hear the calls to prayer, emanating from somewhere down on Emporia’s Commercial Street. “Allah Akbar…..Allah Akbar…Allah Akbar.” The sound was rhythmic, belying the fury of the Islamic winter that had supplanted the nuclear winter which had been its cradle. It was all over. Nancy was gone. Jarrod, Beth, Michael, the grand-children had been purged. I’d survived by falling asleep, only to wake to a nightmare worse than any I could ever have imagined. I was alone in the world. What was I to do?


Gone Away said...

A frightening vision. Don't fall asleep, Phil.

harveyg said...

Brilliant and terrifying, this look into our uncertain future.

I'm going to point to this post from my blog and recommend others do the same.

Thanks for the visionary effort.