"The most common characteristic of all police states is intimidation by surveillance. Citizens know they are being watched and overheard. Their mail is being examined. Their homes can be invaded." ~ Vance Packard
"I Wouldn"t Wear That Shirt If I Was You"
He didn't look like one of the regular security guards. Dressed in black, like the teenager he confronted, he appeared about 30 years of age. Crew cut and tanned, he sternly chided the kid and his pal in the main room of Broward County Library, here in Florida, and for a while I observed.
"I wouldn't wear that tee shirt if I was you," he said. From behind I inspected the black cotton tee worn by the boy. The words Bush Kill appeared in small script I hadn't noticed before, but with my curiosity piqued, I had to see the front. Was it some sexual innuendo on the front that offended the older fellow? The kid appeared about 15 or 16 and stood, politely listening.
"When I was in the Marines, if you had worn a shirt like that," said the crew cut fellow in an ominous tone, "you might live to regret it." I shuffled the movie cassettes in my hand, thinking of The Great Santini, before shifting around the racks to where the trio stood. Broward Library loans movies, DVDs, CDs and books, and after 3:00 p.m. is a popular destination for high school kids. What horrendous design--too horrible even for the hallowed halls of free expression--had drawn a comment from the ex-Marine?
Some bloody, gory mess, I wondered, with naked chicks and bare breasts and devilish beasts? Nope. Nothing so NC-17 or eye-catching. Only political commentary: George W. Bush and a montage of accusatory 911 headlines, rather prosaic stuff to anyone used to the 'Net and the eight years of invective aimed squarely at Slick Willie and now Dubya.
You cannot shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, but you can lie to Congress and get your way with a war. You cannot burn the flag without a Supreme Court ruling, but you can strike a match to a neutral country while the Supreme Court sits idly by. You cannot wear your passions on your sleeve--or tee shirt in this case--but you can dispassionately torch a Constitution while Congress meekly consents. You cannot shoplift, strip naked, or smoke pot without being locked up, but you can shoplift a national election, finagle the FBI, botch a terrorist warning and very likely get re-elected. Ain't America great?
Still I listened for another admonishment before offering a second opinion.
"I'm a veteran too, " I said, "US Air Force--Vietnam era--and I don't see why he cannot--in my opinion--he can wear it anytime." A piss poor public speaker, I pursed my lips before sidling away, movies in hand. Life isn't a movie, and opinions are like assholes: everyone has one, and they all stink.
What-the-hell are we fighting for in Iraq, I wondered? Saddam-style censorship or the chador of the Taliban? A group of schoolgirls listened to one side, and some retirees to the other. The kid in the black shirt shuffled off without saying a word and so did the rest of us. I didn't stick around to debate the rights and wrongs of some public dress code, but later wondered if the ex-Marine might be waiting for me outside. Twenty years my junior, he'd lay me out like a lumberjack felling a Douglas fir.
Paranoia strikes deep, but the only things waiting for me outside were sunshine and heat. Life is a series of differences, either solved peacefully or by bloody confrontation. The kid would have something to talk about at the dinner table, and maybe his parents would censor his wardrobe. Meanwhile, over in Fallujah and Baghdad, US Marines not much older than that kid were dying and reporters were being threatened and killed in Iraq while America was growing divided, all because dialogue failed and ideologues asserted themselves. Dissent--speaking up or speaking out--is rude or impertinent to some, but a fractious scene in a library, or a possible punch in the nose, is better than a rifle butt to the door a decade in the future.