July 09, 2005

At least let me see your faces

In The Man Who Fell To Earth, Rip Torn is thrown to his death, from his apartment many floors up from the street, by men wearing motorcyle helmets. Just before they throw him through the window, he screams at them:

At least let me see your faces!

The last request goes unfulfilled. At the count of three, he is thrown through the window to his death.

I haven't seen the film in maybe twenty years - possibly I saw it too often, as a student - but I still remember the line. Possibly it stuck in my mind, when I was younger, because I didn't understand why it would matter whether he saw their faces or not. Or possibly it stuck in my mind because it does make a difference, and I realised this. Whatever people do, they must do to your face. I think this is what bothers me, particularly, about the bombs that went off yesterday.

I don't much like bombs going off in my home city. I don't much like them going off anywhere. If somebody feels they have to destroy as many innocent civilians as they can, I wish at least they would do it on the American model. I wish that they would take a gun - for if they can make a bomb they must surely be anle to obtain a gun - and having taken that gun, shoot as many of us as they can until they get gunned down themselves. Sometimes suicide bombers (if that, in London, is what they were) are called cowardly. It is a stupid suggestion, for there is nothing cowardly in going to your death. But there are degrees of courage nonetheless. It would be rather more courageous to pick up a gun than it was to let off a bomb.

I think I have a fear of bombs that I do not have of guns. Easy for me to say, when I have never, to my knowledge, seen a loaded gun. But I think there is a fear of being maimed, of a bomb going off and losing a leg, an arm, or half my face, and some sort of idea that at least if they shoot you, then at least you're safely dead.

Rationally, it must be nonsense. Guns fire pieces of metal that rip through your flesh at extraordinary speed. bullets are maiming machines. Soldiers lose legs and arms to bullets just as they do to mines and mortars. The wounded outnumber the dead. But for all that, the irrational thought persists. At least, it goes, the man with a gun would try to kill me. They wouldn't just let a blast maim, wound and kill in actuarial ratios. They would look me in the eye and try to kill me, specifically me, even if the only reason to pick on me was that I was the person they looked at next, after they shot the person they looked at before. But they would look at you. You would see their face.

There is something incredibly treacherous about a bomb, whether it be a bomb on a bus in Tavistock Square or a bomb dropped out of a plane in Afghanistan. You cannot see the face of the man who dropped it. You may see the face of the man who carried it on board the bus - but the treachery remains, because you do not know what they are doing. They are keeping a hurtful secret from you.

Nor, for that matter, when they are in their plane, or even when they carry the bomb themselves, do they see you. And while the suicide bomber sees you - sees you very well - they need make no explanation afterwards. One will tell you nothing: the other one (or the men who sent them) will tell you lies and tell them when it is too late. The bomb kills those who it was not intended to kill? It is not their fault. The bomb let them down, it didn't do its job, it didn't hit the target it was meant to hit. I didn't mean to hurt you, says the betrayer. I'm sorry, it wasn't meant to be that way. The bomber either has nothing to say, or he says the same - it wasn't meant to be that way. And you answer - what way was it supposed to be? What did you imagine was going to happen other than my being hurt?

At least let me see your faces! At least they would have had to look you in the eye, and decide, knowing that you were watching them decide, whether you were to live or whether you should die. Because the people who take those decisions take them when you cannot see them. Later, if they are cornered, they will tell you that they didn't realise what those decisions meant. But they did, of course. They did. That was why they took them when they did. They took them when they didn't have to look at you. The gunman at least is better than the betrayer. He looks at you, and shoots you even though you looked back at him. Much rather him, much better him, than those who, though they may let you live, speak kindness to your face and then do harm behind your back.

I don't like betrayers, liars, moral cowardice. It's personal - and being personal, therefore hits home, therefore evokes fear and loathing, in a way that simple moral disapproval, even absolute contempt, could never do. You fear some things - in, say, much the same way as I fear the Catholic Church - above and beyond the way you would, or could, dislike them purely by dint of ethics and of reason. I fear betrayal more than anything else in the world. I fear people doing things behind my back to hurt me. And I think, when I wonder what it is that shakes me up about the bombs, whether it is not that same aspect that I fear the most. (Or maybe I just see betrayal, and the fear of betrayal, in everything. But the effect is much the same.)

At least let me see your faces! I don't like bombs, be they big or small. I don't like bombs by the roadside, bombs in restaurants, bombs in trains, bombs that fall on fields and hospitals and houses. And I don't like betrayals, lies sweet-sounding, things that people say because they can get away with saying them. It is the maiming that is the problem. Bombs have no faces, and the people who let them off keep their faces hidden. Bombs are betrayers: they go off behind your back. Bombs go off and people lie. And other people end up maimed.


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