Back on September 10 I took part in a demonstration at the Brunswick Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine. The reason some 300 of us were there was to protest the Great Maine Air Show, particularly the Navy's elite F/A-18 fighter jet ($57 million each) flying squadron, the Blue Angels. Why demonstrate against the Blue Angels? Because they are an exultant expression of the glorification of violence in our militarized culture. But, more about that later. Some aspects of what happened there continue to disturb me. So, I'm finally moved to mull it over in writing.
The protest began outside the gates of the Navy base on the night before the Air Show. About thirty people, men & women, many of them members of Veterans for Peace, gathered for an all night vigil. Some of you may legitimately ask, why an all night vigil? Who cares? Who is going to pay attention? What's the point of a protest going on at 3am in the morning with only a couple of night shift cops as witness? Isn't this a waste of strategic energy if your intent is to raise awareness around an issue? All good questions. It's hard to know these days what form of protest is effective, especially because the media does such a poor job of reporting the issues, and entrenched power seems impervious. Often we feel compelled to participate in what seems a fruitless effort simply to show the depth of our commitment to anyone who is watching & to ourselves. A demonstration of determined camaraderie is not a fruitless thing. And maybe a few soldiers on the base are prompted to think about what they are doing.
The night turned surprisingly cold after a warm day, and most of us were not prepared for the temperature. So, besides being awake most of the night, standing, talking, pacing, sitting, trying to keep warm, we shivered, wrapped in blankets, the lucky ones huddled in sleeping bags.
But something began happening at about 10 pm that still haunts & concerns me. Three teenage boys launched a counter demonstration. Across the lighted, divided highway from us, the boys suddenly appeared, shouting, swaggering, gesticulating angrily, dressed only in shorts and tee-shirts. They also carried signs that we couldn't read which they held up for passing traffic which must have encouraged motorists to honk if they supported something the boys thought was in opposition to us the war on Iraq? the Blue Angels? the military? There wasn't much traffic, but cars slowed going in both directions & sometimes honked for us, sometimes for them.
The boys had not been there long when they stripped off their tee-shirts. All three were medium height, lean, smoking a lot, and yelling that they were going to show us that Brunswick supported them, not us. Because it was cold, and because they seemed like kids who would run out of steam as soon as the beer wore off, we expected them to leave soon with a show of disparaging shouts and squealing tires.
Not the case. They kept it up. For hours. Their obstreperous, at times nearly apoplectic, behavior was in almost humorous contrast to our quiet vigil. If one wonders where our energy comes from (a bunch of middle-aged folks unused to all-nighters), one must certainly also ask about theirs. We are fueled in part by our anger at the status quo and all it represents in terms of violence, exploitation, deceit, and suffering. Their anger must in part be the opposite, fueled by their outrage at our questioning of the status quo, which for them seems patriotic and noble. Eventually, the police, who seemed very concerned to not let the situation get too confrontational, told the boys they had to stop shouting. Maybe Brunswick has a law about shouting in a public place after midnight. I suspected that, denied the right to yell at us, they would go home. They didn't & stayed for several more hours.
But, right before the police quieted them, one of the boys waved his sinewy, young arms at us and shouted something that still reverberates in my ears, something I remember as, "When I graduate from high school, I'm joining the Marines, and I'm going to kill everything that moves!"
What haunts and disturbs me is wondering what this kid was really saying. Obviously, I don't know that particular teenage boy and had no opportunity to talk with him. I was merely the object of his anger and a witness to his protestation of violent outrage. Part of his message, I assume, was to shout the thing that he knew would appall us as peaceniks. But, let's examine the content a bit more. First, his plan as he moves from high school into the adult, working class is to join the Marines. We know that because jobs paying living wages are so scarce for most kids, and because college is so expensive, kids are being funneled into the military. This is not a mere happenstance, but part of the neoconservative plan. Create a society in which so many people are reliant on the military for income that they dare not question its goals or refuse its offers. Increase complicity, compliance will follow. So, this boy may not envision a future with many more options than the Marines.
Second is his desire to kill everything that moves. What emotions and ideas motivate such a sentiment? Rage? Fear? Arrogance? Hopelessness? Self-loathing? Patriotism? A toxic brew of them all? Or, an inchoate compulsion to obliterate everything because the world that he is about to join with adult responsibility is such a threatening and threatened place, is so mind-bogglingly screwed up, incompetently managed, and fundamentally disrespectful of sustainable values, its hypocritical words & deeds twisted so tightly that really an apocalyptic response just kill everything feels right, feels satisfying, feels necessary, the only way forward being to start from scratch? Thus, he wants to join the military component of the rapture index. I'm not presuming that he could or would express such sentiments. I'm guessing … because I've felt them myself. When these kids finally left, they headed through the checkpoint into the Navy base. That's where they were coming from.
A few more words about the Blue Angels spectacle: Many people would say, "Hey, this is harmless, exciting fun. Jets piloted by virtuoso Navy jocks performing close to the ground in perfect formation at tremendous speed & with incredible sound, what's your gripe! Nobody gets hurt, it's free, we all forget our problems for a few hours and get a few kicks to boot. And corporations underwrite it all." Well, let's think about it. These jets are terrifying and thrilling. They are also infernal death machines. These same ones making our little American kids put their hands over their ears are shooting lethal missiles and dropping cluster bombs in Iraq, amputating the hands of Iraqi kids. They will never be able to block the sound. The bloodless shock & awe in Brunswick is the real thing in Fallujah. The little American kids witnessing their parents and friends and 200,000 other Mainers applauding this spectacle are seduced with the same social pressure as kids in a crowd applauding Kobe Bryant. Wow, I want to do that. After the basketball game they can't wait to practice their dribbling & jump shots in the backyard. After the air show they play with toy jets, swoop & dive, growl and screech like jet engines. If they have no toy jet, their own hands scream through the air. They become the jet. What better recruitment tool could the military have? But, imagine their thoughts if they were actually watching the Blue Angels performing the tasks they were built for. Blood & dismembered bodies flying, buildings exploding. Anti-aircraft guns. A Blue Angle exploding in flames. Their parents failing to eject in time. We witness here the same detachment from reality and accountability that we witness in almost every other part of our lives whether it's the pomp and power of a government that lies, the massive coal generators that make our electricity and pollute our air, or the revolving door between corporate contractors and government policy makers.
And the corporations like General Electric who do the underwriting get tax breaks which means we all make up the difference. They also get the contracts to build more weapons & planes money that could be going for health care, education, the environment & social services. We pay & then we pay again.
Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children's Defense Fund, whose portrait I have painted, asks, "What's wrong with our children? Adults telling children to be honest while lying and cheating. Adults telling children not to be violent while marketing and glorifying violence. I believe adult hypocrisy is the biggest problem children face in America."
That's why we opposed the Blue Angels. That's why we stood in the cold all night.
I suspect that the boy who yelled that he wanted to kill everything that moves, although he could not say it, is stretched as tight as a fiddle string between the mixed messages of our society. Kids taught to do unto others as they would have others do unto them while also being taught to scream with the Marines, "Learn to kill, and kill we will!" Kids taught to care for their pet hamsters while their parents are participating in one of the world's greatest species extinctions. Kids told not to throw paper out of the car because it's wrong to litter and because the paper can re recycled while they cruise down the highway in an SUV with no pollution controls getting 12 miles per gallon. Kids taught to respect an authority that has no respect for them.
How far is it really for some of us to go from having said that the human race is destroying the planet, from having said that our species appears to have a death wish, to its inversion, shouting I want to kill everything that moves? Wasn't that boy merely saying what we are doing? And if we are doing it, killing everything that moves, isn't it because we want to?
October 5, 2005