Belmont Club

Children of the Monolith

Michael Totten describes nearly getting mugged — or perhaps kidnapped — in Tunisia, which he was visiting in order to see how the Arab Spring had played out there.  But the life of a nation in aggregate is one thing. At the individual level it is always another. Even in the best of countries, individuals live, die or face danger mostly alone.

As is typical outside the United States, shady individuals approached me in the airport and asked if I wanted a taxi. They’re supposed to wait in line at the taxi stand, but the impatient and unlicensed will venture into the terminal and prowl for tired arrivals like me.

I almost always wave these people off. Some of these guys aren’t even taxi drivers. They use their own private cars and charge exorbitant rates. You are well advised to avoid them.

But I was more tired than usual after crossing the Atlantic this time, so when a decent-looking sort asked if I needed a taxi, I figured, what the hell, I’ll hire him as long as he actually has a taxi and will use the meter.

Before he even started the car, he placed a call on his cell phone. That right there tripped my threat radar …  I didn’t understand everything he said to his friend on the phone, but I did hear him say he had an American in his car. This was not good. Why would he call someone just to say that? And did he think foreigners understand no Arabic whatsoever?

I secretly fished my house and car keys out of my carry-on bag and placed them in my hand in my coat pocket. You can seriously damage someone if you punch them in the face with a key sticking out of your fist. …

“Come,” he said. “We’re getting in a new car.”

Oh no we’re not, I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I first needed him to open the trunk so I could take out my suitcase …

Everything was wrong with this scenario. I needed to grab my suitcase from him, but he was heading straight for the freeway. I jogged up to him. …

Just then someone yelled at him from behind us. We both turned and looked. It was a police officer pointing at his car. My “driver” had double parked in the lot and the cop was ordering him to move.

This was my moment …  “I’m not getting in another car with you,” I said and began walking briskly back toward the terminal, leaving him to deal with the policeman on his own ..

I’m telling you this story for a reason. Last year the Tunisian government declared a state of emergency in the wake of a rising crime wave. Five times in the last year—including a week after this incident happened—the Tunisian government extended the state of emergency. Crime is out of control, at least compared with the country’s normal low level.

But crime is no respecter of places. One grandma in Georgia, USA  shot it out with two armed robbers when they came up to her car after she dropped off her grandson at her daughter’s at 2 am. Although the incident happened a world away from Tunisia, it is interesting to note the psychological points of similarity; to look at what goes through a person’s mind when they are in imminent danger.

Looking at Lulu Campbell’s bullet-riddled silver Toyota Tundra, common sense says the 57-year-old grandmother should be dead. … There are eight bullet holes in the Tundra’s hood, another in the front grill, and both front-seat side windows have been shot out. There’s also a single bullet hole through the front windshield, when Campbell shot back at one of the assailants …

As she pulled into her daughter’s driveway on English Avenue, her grandson went inside. As an afterthought, Campbell said, she wanted to call him to make certain the house was secure. … “I was looking for my phone.”

Campbell said she couldn’t find it, got out and checked the truck’s backseat to look for it in her purse. As she searched, she said she heard a voice in her head whisper to her to get into the front seat and lock the door. She immediately did, and she said that likely saved her life.

Seconds later, two men carrying guns approached her. One of them, later identified by police as Brenton Lance Spencer, 32, started to shout at her through the front passenger door to open the vehicle up and give him her money. The other, whom Macon police have identified as Dantre Horatio Shivers, 30, stood in front of the truck, also pointing a gun.

“(Spencer) shouted, ‘Give me the f—— money and open the f—— door!’ ” Campbell said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, somebody is going to rob me.’ I said, ‘Baby, you’re going to kill me anyway, so I don’t have to open it!’ ”

Campbell said she reached for her .38-caliber revolver just as Spencer allegedly fired at her. She felt Spencer’s bullet whiz by her chest as she fired back. Her shot hit Spencer in the chest.

“I hurt my back (pushing the seat back to avoid the shot),” she said. “I saw the guy in front of me, and I said, ‘Oh my God, there are two of them.’ I said I’m going to take one of them with me. That’s what was in my head.”

Michael and Lulu’s experience have several points in common. The first commonality is the moment of presentiment. This is the time when danger is first perceived as fact. In Michael’s case it came together when he heard the driver make a phone call. Lulu Campbell’s case  is more curious. She experiences something like a Sixth Sense in operation, what she would probably call the kutob — which is a Tagalog word for a funny feeling you get in the moments immediately preceding an event.

The second commonality is what might be called the decision point.  It is the moment when the resolution to act in a certain way takes hold. Michael decides he’s going to make a break for it, and improvises some brass knuckles. He wants to keep the possible kidnapper ignorant of his perception of danger as long as he can. In Campbell’s case there is no point in being coy.  Rather, she adopts the very typical form of bahala na. It is almost a perfect atavism. “I’m going to take one of them with me.”

Each thinks in slightly different way. Grandma Lulu operates with an almost bicameral brain. Later she would say that God and the spirit of her recently deceased son were watching over her, which is also a pretty common idea among Filipinos.  And I would not doubt that she could actually have heard voices. By contrast, the action in Michael Totten’s head is self-consciously rational. The voice he heard was his own.

Despite their differences, you might argue that they were essentially the same human thought processes viewed through different prisms.  One that of an American and the other that of a Filipina of the old school. Why these particular differences? One of the interesting questions about such memories is whether we add structure to them in the immediate aftermath of the event. Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chronicler of the Holocaust wrote:

Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features.

But perhaps Levi is only half-right. Revisionism may happen with the years but it may not require any time at all. Different people may constitute their recollections differently to begin with. Memories can be instantaneously different at the moment of perception.

But ultimately the importance of memory is less to do with retrospective accuracy than the way it in which it forms our present day instincts. Michael Totten notes that the memory of Tunisia’s glorious and tolerant past may not save it from dangers of extremism.

It’s hard to say, though, if a moderate mainstream culture by itself can inoculate a country from violent upheaval. The average Algerian wasn’t interested in seeing his country drown in fire and blood, but it happened anyway. The average Iraqi didn’t want his local marketplace car-bombed on a regular basis, but it happened anyway.

Tunisia developed a Salafist problem almost at once after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Salafists are the worst of the worst—political totalitarians who wish to impose an iron Islamist state and at least a regional caliphate if not a global one.

Possibly that is because moderation itself — with its emphasis on tolerance and rational cogitation — is vulnerable to violence in ways that the raw human instinct is not.  The moderate Tunisians are far too well mannered to act against extremists. Like tolerant people the world over, they withhold judgment until the last. Their moment of presentiment never happens; rational thought is retrospective to start with and the decision point may come not at all.

The basic man still has some advantages over the supreme intellectual in the immediate face of danger. What saved Michael and Lulu Campbell was not their education or refinement. It was the memory of living in dangerous places and the instincts formed thereby. Levi understood that education as much as anything else, prepared many Jews to voluntarily walk into the gates of Auschwitz. They could not conceive of something as awful, as barbarous as that death camp, even as they passed it portals. Only the men who had seen others at their worst could perceive the danger and ready themselves to resist what rational man could not apprehend. Levi wrote:

Logic and morality made it impossible to accept an illogical and immoral reality; they engendered a rejection of reality which as a rule led the cultivated man rapidly to despair. But the varieties of the man-animal are innumerable, and I saw and have described men of refined culture, especially if young, throw all this overboard, simplify and barbarize themselves, and survive. A simple man, accustomed not to ask questions of himself, was beyond the reach of the useless torment of asking himself why.

This video clip from a recent movie shows the Japanese Victory Parade following the defeat of Nanking. The defeated Chinese must watch it and realize, if they hadn’t thought of it yet, that they are less than nothing.  Their very existence from that moment forward depended entirely on the caprice of others. It’s in an illogical thought to a moderate person, but true withal. The Chinese learned that the price of not winning isn’t second place. It’s no place at all.

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