November 19, 2003
By The Plaid Adder
In an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Remember Me," Dr. Beverly Crusher, having noticed with alarm that people she knows are disappearing right and left, discovers that the spatial universe around her seems to be shrinking as well.
Finally - realizing, as she says, that "if there's nothing wrong with me, maybe there's something wrong wtih the universe" - she asks the computer to define "the universe." The computer says, promptly and cheerfully, "The universe is a spheroid region, 705 meters in diameter." Dr. Crusher is very much bothered by this, and sets out immediately to try to correct the problem and restore the universe to its former amplitude.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, would find the computer's answer enormously comforting. A spheroid region 705 meters in diameter is just about as much as his crowd can handle. Give Bush a nice comfy spheroid region 705 meters in diameter, of which the only inhabitants are him, his advisors, and a few hundred heavily armed security goons, and he'll never trouble himself about what happened to the rest of the world. He can go on giving his orders and making his pronouncements and slinging lies and bullshit, and everyone in the universe will smile peacefully upon him and pat him on the head and offer him treats. In a spheroid universe 705 meters in diameter, Bush could finally be the wise, compassionate, benevolent, all-powerful ruler that Rove keeps saying he is.
Well, right now, Bush's universe is a spheroid region 705 meters in diameter. They don't call it "the universe," of course; they call it a "sterile zone." For today, Bush is in England, where according to the terms of a deal worked out after much wrangling with the British authorities, Bush will be enclosed in a region of space which will be uncontaminated by human life - with the exception, of course, of the members of the official British welcoming committee, and Bush's own enormous entourage.
The term is suggestive; one imagines Bush enthroned in state on a giant petri dish, coasting down stainless steel corridors toward a hermetic oxygen chamber. One also recalls a much earlier episode of Star Trek, in which a crazed automated space probe which has been zipping around the universe destroying any life form judged to be imperfect finally ends up destroying itself while bleating "Sterilize! Sterilize!"
But of course this leads to more sobering real-world associations; the "racial hygiene" practiced by eugenists in the first half of the twentieth century, the "ethnic cleansing" that closed out its last decade. And by then one is wondering what it costs to keep Bush inside his pristine little playpen, happily oblivious to the chaos raging in the world that encloses his safe and sterile universe.
Thanks to London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, and a general putting-down of feet amongst the British authorities, it won't cost as much as it might have. The Guardian reported Sunday on all the things that the U.S. authorities asked for and won't get. It's a long list. Among the more startling demands that were denied: diplomatic immunity for American security personnel, so that they could shoot protestors with impunity, and closing down the subway system for the duration of the visit (in case a terrorist somehow managed to smuggle a MOAB onto a tube train and detonate it underneath the Bush motorcade). Authorities also refused to allow the Bush team to tote in "a piece of military hardware called a 'mini-gun', which usually forms part of the mobile armoury in the presidential cavalcade," or to patrol the skies above London with military helicopters.
Most important, control over security will remain with London's Metropolitan Police (14,000 of them) and the massive protest expected for Thursday will in fact be allowed to march to Trafalgar Square along a route that will take them past Downing Street and Westminster Abbey, where Bush will be spending the afternoon.
As an American who has been doing my best to voice opposition to my own president any way I can since he started bombing Afghanistan, I find watching the preparations for the protests accompanying Bush's visit to London both exhilarating and depressing. Bush remarked the other day that he will enjoy being in a country where dissent can be expressed freely. I'd enjoy it too; but unfortunately I'm stuck in this country. And in this country, most of what the British authorities rejected as unreasonable and outrageous has become standard operating procedure.
If you've ever protested a Bush appearance, you know what I'm talking about: the helicopters overhead, the metal fences penning you up into your "free speech zone" half a mile up the road, the detachment of riot police - and, if you do happen to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade, you will also be glimpsing that mini-gun that the London authorities rejected as overkill. It is true that nobody has ever tried to shut down the Metro during the big marches in DC; but that's probably because Bush is never home when the protestors come to town. He and his sterile spheroid region are always on the road then, ensconced inside a $2,000 a plate fund-raising dinner or hovering over Camp David or bobbing along the spread of that ranch in Crawford.
But in England, where they are doing a much better job of hanging onto the civil liberties that our first amendment was supposed to protect, there's going to be a lot more pressure applied to the outer edges of Bush's sterile spheroid region. Indeed, Bush's shrinking itinerary shows that his universe has already contracted significantly. A planned speech to Parliament has been cancelled, because Bush's handlers are unwilling to expose him to the ferocious heckling he would certainly receive. Instead, Bush will be doing what he does best: meeting and greeting at expensive private banquets and delivering short, carefully scripted, empty speeches to hand-picked audiences who have been thoroughly screened for potential contaminants before they are allowed into the sterile zone.
But as Bush browses the tombs of the poets in Westminster Abbey or dines at 10 Downing Street, it will be hard to ignore the noise of 100,000 some odd protestors passing by in the street outside. That ought to be audible, even over the noise of all those poets spinning madly in their graves as the cowboy boots of the man who has singlehandedly brought the English language to the verge of extinction strut across the flagstones above them.
So for three days, Bush will be exposed - however slightly - to the universe the rest of us inhabit. For three days, he will savor the pleasures of being in a country where the authorities do not automatically assume that he is the center of the universe, and who are not interested in turning their entire city into a "sterile zone" simply to pander to his paranoia. For three days, tens of thousands of actual human beings will gather in London's public spaces to voice their protest against Bush's program of endless war. For three days, the bubble boy will be menaced by the infection of dissent, as those nasty organisms massing in protest in London's public spaces threaten to breach the borders of his sterile zone.
Well. You've got three days, England. We're counting on you. Don't let anyone give you any crap about being "anti-American." Hundreds of thousands of Americans like me understand perfectly well that the more you love America, the more you get to hate the people who are currently dismantling it from the top down. If you can make a dent in that sterile zone, you will be doing this country an enormous favor. So go on out there. And whatever you say, say it loud. Noise doesn't carry too well in a vaccuum, and it's hard to hear in the sterile zone.
And then after three days, Bush will be rushed back to America, and he and his handlers will collapse in relief and gratitude as the borders of that spheroid rush away into the darkness, and the sterile zone silently expands. Lulled by the sighing of the filters that surround him, Bush will sleep peacefully again, undisturbed in the silence of America the pacified. America, where the voice of the press has been muted into a continual murmur of praise; America, where the infection of dissent has been safely quarantined, and an ever-vigilant team of specialists provides a constant supply of antidotes. America, which is suffocating inside its fortress of duct tape and plastic as it slowly and surely becomes one big sterile zone.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.