We're All In It Together

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On my Christmas flight to Seattle, departing from Houston Hobby Airport, I had the dubious honor of being among the first American passenger-candidates required to remove my shoes and have them passed through an X-ray machine. I knew I should have taken care of that squeak in my Timberlands.

I was travelling with my parents, who, like myself, look as swarthy as any folk of ancient Celtic and English heritage. So, we were treated to a “random” (every fifth passenger) search of our checked luggage.

I had to wonder, would a twenty percent probability of failure deter a fanatical terrorist? Did it discourage “Robert Reid,” who had been detained on the occasion prior to the discovery of his corrupted sole?

The thought also occurred to me, I hope no terrorist attempts to hide plastique in his nether recesses — I’m not looking forward to full body cavity searches as a requirement for air travel.

In Dallas, I also witnessed the efficient search of a Caucasian gentleman whose age I would estimate was between 114 and 117 years old — and to be sure, extra care was taken to examine his wheelchair. I missed the interrogation. It was probably something like: “Has this wheelchair been with you at all times? …” I doubt if he could have blown up a balloon, much less an airplane.

But I must admit, in my case there were no significant delays, and everyone I met throughout my travels was quite friendly, trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

However, I can’t say that anything that I encountered on my trip made me feel more secure, much less make me so.

Frankly, I don’t worry about these things — I know the probability of dying in an automobile accident is far greater than being the victim of a terrorist attack, almost no matter how horrific.

Nevertheless, our government wants us to know they’re on top of it. Houston Hobby was in no way deficient of military personnel carrying automatic weapons, wearing their new black berets emblazoned with a blue crest with thirteen stars — which is said to represent the Continental Army, a star for each of the original colonies.

Now of course I’m paranoid, but I couldn’t help noticing that the shade of blue is not at all the traditional navy shade found in the Continental Army flag, or in the flags of the Confederacy or Texas for that matter, but rather is exactly the sickening pale blue found in the flags of the EU and the UN.

And I know the army generals would like to convey their best “hands-on” image, but, despite all those al-Qaeda cells here in The Homeland, does Gen. Tommy Franks have to wear his camouflage dress for every State-side press conference? Wouldn’t he better off in black camo, so as to blend in with all those limousines?

Brazil

“Happiness — We’re All In It Together.” So read a State propaganda poster that appeared in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. Or it might have read “United We Stand.”

On the advice of a friend, I rented this Franz Kafka-meets-George Orwell-meets-Monty Python dystopian satire the night before my trip — he said the parallels with our current state were noteworthy. I was not disappointed. I had seen it years ago when it was first released, but I had forgotten much.

The film even takes place during the Christmas season. The usual symbolic references to Christmas commercialism are exercised. In a Christmas parade, the pilgrims hold up a banner, on which is a cross emboldened with a dollar sign. In the background one can hear Santa asking a child: “What would you like for Christmas?” The innocent exclaims, “My own credit card!”

But neither Kafka nor Orwell, nor even Gilliam in 1985, could have foreseen the cynical abolition of the most oblique allusions to Christian holiness — the film’s blatant references to Christmas illustrate the most pessimistic predictions often fail to anticipate the present State Culture.

Much of the film, such as the obsession of the “hero” with a forbidden female, with whom he is caught en flagrante delicto by the State police, as well as the ubiquitous presence of State-sponsored video, certainly reminded me of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But also much seems to have been borrowed from the film Brazil.

One of the early scenes is of industrious mayhem — a great deal of movement and very little productivity, and could easily have been the inspiration for a similar early scene in the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy. The cinematography is strikingly similar.

And as for plot twists, well, I can’t say much without giving away the farm for all three films, but if you see it, keep this in mind — one plot convention employed in Brazil is very reminiscent of Abre Los Ojos and the English-language re-make Vanilla Sky.

Brazil takes place amidst a state of terror. There are real terrorists in their midst, but it’s obvious the State is a far greater danger than the terrorists.

The film begins with a television interview of the Deputy Minister of Information, and which with no effort at all could be transposed into our time and place. In fact, the interview is so apropos it doesn’t seem like satire at all.

The interviewer asks the DM: “What do you believe is behind this recent increase in terrorist bombings?”

“Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless minority of people seems to have forgotten certain old-fashioned virtues, and just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win. If these people would just play the game, they’d get a lot more out of life.”

This sounded so much like “They hate us for our freedom, democracy, and goodness,” I winced.

The interviewer persists, “Nevertheless … there are those that would maintain that the Ministry of Information has become too large and unwieldy … And the cost of it all, Deputy Minister, 7% of the GNP.”

Another satirical understatement — I suppose Gilliam couldn’t bring himself to imagine that there would be a press so lacking in accountability that they would no longer ask responsible questions, like these.

The DM responds, “I understand this concern on behalf of the taxpayer, they want value for money, that’s why we always insist on the principle of Information Retrieval Charges … They’re absolutely right — that those found guilty should pay for their periods of detention and for the information retrieved [during] the periods of interrogation.”

What this means is that those who are suspected of giving aid and comfort to terrorists will be arrested without warrant, confined without due process, tortured (“information retrieval”) until they receive the confession they desire; and, the “convicted” man and/or his estate is responsible for reimbursing the government for all their trouble.

Sounds a bit like the USA PATRIOT Act, doesn’t it?

Later in the film, an Information Retrieval supervisor attempts to coerce a victim: “Don’t fight it, son. Confess, quickly. If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating.”

The interviewer closes, “Do you believe that the government is winning the battle against terrorists?” The DM answers, “Ah yes … I’d say they’re nearly out of the game.” A bit skeptical, the interviewer asserts, “The bombing campaign is now in its thirteenth year.” The DM guffaws, “Beginner’s luck.” Although fear must be maintained, the citizenry must believe that the State is taking care of business.

The story line is put into motion by a bug which gets squashed in a printer, causing a typographical error unjustly identifying an innocent citizen, one Mr. Buttle, as suspected terrorist Harry Tuttle (a small part played by Robert De Niro).

Information Retrieval storms Mr. Buttle’s house in a scene that looks like the storming of Elian Gonzalez’s house.

After putting him in a strait-jacket, the officer in charge informs Mr. Buttle that he “has been invited to assist the Ministry of Information with certain inquiries, and that he is liable for certain financial obligations …”

The hero of the film, Sam Lowry, is an intelligent and imaginative chap that works for Information Services. Lowry innocently investigates the Tuttle-Buttle glitch, but winds up becoming an enemy of the State as well.

Sometime during his investigation, Lowry has a “heating emergency,” so he calls Central Services — but CS informs him that they don’t make house calls between 23:00 and 08:00. But it so happens that the “real terrorist,” Harry Tuttle, intercepts his call, and offers to fix his ducting problems. He opens an access duct, operates on a seething mass that looks like an animal bowel, and repairs it.

After some odd conversation, Lowry asks “Wouldn’t it be simpler to work for Central Services?” Tuttle tells him he can’t stand the paperwork: “I came into this game for the action — the excitement — going in — travel light — get in — get out — wherever there’s trouble — a man alone — now they’ve got the whole country sectioned off — you can’t make a move without a form.”

Indeed, as a result of the torture, Buttle is dead. (The Information Retrieval specialist griped, “I can’t be held responsible if Buttle’s heart condition didn’t appear in Tuttle’s file.”) Lowry was brought into the case because Information Services is in a panic because they’ve overcharged Buttle (i.e., Buttle’s estate, i.e., his wife and children) for interrogation, and they don’t know what to do with the check. Lowry’s practical solution is to hand the check to the widow personally, something that never occurred to IS.

CS has always suspected Tuttle of “freelance subversion.” That is, this is his real crime: entrepreneurship.

Our anarcho-capitalist Harry Tuttle, after repairing Lowry’s ductwork, reassures him: “We’re all in it together.”

Yes, we are, let’s just remember who “we” are.

Brian Dunaway [send him mail] is a chemical engineer and a native Texan.

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