by Mark Barnette
I lay on my bunk, watching the morning’s sunrise and counting down the final minutes until the appointed time. Outside the door, my guards waited impatiently for their leader to appear. We were all gathering at the appointed place, with each of us prepared to play our appointed roles. Finally, it was time. The assemblage walked outside to the disinterest of the audience who, if they cared at all, would recognize me as the guest of honor, a dubious distinction I could quite literally live without.
The compère was a filthy, unshaven man with wavy black hair and an apocalyptic grin, his uniform a soiled fatigue jacket and torn jeans. As we marched to the point of my final departure, I conceded silently that both his dress and his deportment were entirely appropriate to my current circumstance.
We marched side by side at the head of our small parade, followed by two rows of six men, each armed with an AR-15 and all primed for a single purpose: to dispatch me as efficiently as possible.
At the pre-determined point, we stopped, and the men behind us began sidestepping haphazardly, spreading out into something vaguely resembling a straight line.
The scruffy leader then took me by the bicep, directed me up toward the appointed spot, marked not with an X but with a single, rough-hewn, upright wooden beam. Upon the post were two things: a small wooden sign at the top that read, “Here dies a traitor,” and a single metal ring at waist-level.
He spun me around brusquely, unnecessarily so, but he did it to make a point. He grabbed my hands, already securely bound behind me, and attached them to the ring like a horse to a hitching post. I was the condemned man, waiting only for the drum roll to make it so.
I smelled the putrid, acrid mix of sweat, dirt, smoke, and death on the man. Partaking of this fragrance with my final breath was maddening. Not the scent of roses or daffodils, not lavender or lilac, but the stale, disgusting aroma of desperate humanity engaged in a quixotic orgy of self-destruction.
Having dealt with my restraints, he stood upright, then tilted his head toward mine.
“No,” said I, trying to muster as much bravado as possible. “I will die with my eyes wide open.”
“Pity. A blindfold is better.”
“Better for whom?” I groused.
The man just shrugged. “Do you have any last words before we executive the tribunal’s sentence?” That seemed a pitiable but sadly appropriate choice of words. He droned on, “It is customary to do so, to beg forgiveness for your crime.”
I stared hard at the squalor surrounding the lot of us—the firing squad, the other prisoners milling about, a handful of gawkers—and I wondered what words would come, what last bit of wisdom I could urge out between my parched lips that might impart some meaning.
I shook my head in disbelief. I couldn’t imagine what could sway anyone assembled here, and I would not satisfy their wish that I grovel before them. I was numb. There were no tears; I was past that point now. I was going to die. There was no other choice. I stood stoically, only vaguely realizing there was no real need for me to do anything save stand completely still.
The scruffy man grew impatient. Finally, he began to move away, but I called him back.
“Give me a moment to think. Perhaps something will come.” The sarcasm dripped from my tongue.
I did not intend it as a plea for a few more seconds of life, but he took it as such and honored my last request. He drifted back toward me, warily as I drank in this final scene from the second act of my little play. I tried again to process all they saw. A futile effort, but it was all I had left, and as my eyes darted about, my mind raced.
I thought about how we’d arrived here, and how far I’d come; how far we’d all come. I thought back to the days when society taught us that “sticks and stones could break my bones, but words could never harm me.” No one had told me simple words might one day bring a retaliation of real sticks and stones—or worse. That was not supposed to be the way it worked.
Jesus, how the world had changed.
A traitor? So the sign said. Even now, the insult made me angry, not that my anger mattered anymore. I had served in the military, and I had taken the oath, one I believed I still followed: “To protect and defend.” Those words had meant something once. Now they spoke to no one.
As I looked at this man, I wondered if he had taken the same oath, and if he had, how the same words we’d each spoken could have two such entirely different meanings. The paradox brought forth from me a furious, bitter laugh.
He stared back at me, a puzzling look of consternation crossing his face. Was he considering the origins of my reaction? Did he believe me mad? Was he reading my mind? Or was he thinking the same thing as I? Was he wondering what I had sworn to protect? Freedom of speech? Of thought? Of conscience? Those terms had meant something once, as well.
They had meant both the right to speak one’s mind, and the obligation to do so. It meant having a debate unrestrained by fear of the retribution, the unwelcome first cousin of unpopular ideas. And yet, here and now, this very action—giving voice to my “unpopular” thoughts—had become my crime.
I had been warned before to beware of thinking “bad thoughts.” This warning constituted my first offense. I repeated my thoughts to others. That was my second offense. For my judges, the worst charge of all was my friends cheering my words. In doing so, I’d doomed us all. Their cheers became my third crime. It did not matter that I had spoken the truth. Far from a defense, this fact sealed my fate.
When the trials arrived, the judges said I must speak; that I must testify against the others. According to their logic, to defend myself, I must indict myself. In defending myself, I had to admit to both my crimes and my friend’s crimes, the sins of thinking, of speaking, and of listening. It did not matter that the supposedly criminal words I uttered were accurate; the truth became the evidence against me. Such was the purpose behind the exercise.
In my naivety, I failed to comprehend that the concept of truth had, for them, an entirely different meaning. I’d always considered truth an absolute. But they considered it a matter of relativity.
My failure to grasp this thought was one the scruffy man would, through his order, soon rectify.
In condemning us, the judges claimed that such rights were dangerous. They said freedoms were dangerous, and the truth so precious that each must be guarded jealously and dispensed only with permission. They claimed that the actions they took were for the greater good; society’s safety, not theirs. Now, standing here chained to this post, I did not feel safe, and as I looked down the barrels of those guns, I did not feel at all protected.
My friends had died at the hands of those who would also, in a moment, kill me. My captors ensured my execution came last, after all the others. My judges believed this somehow fitting. They felt they had, as the scruffy man informed me earlier, saved the best for last.
And now my time had come.
In the Dark Ages they had the rack, the whip, and the Inquisition, but I had foolishly believed we had grown beyond that. Now I realized we had not gone anywhere. We’d only been traveling in grand circles.
We were once a people who stood proudly and trusted in God, yet now we cowered in fear. We used to believe in God, in our nation, and in ourselves. Then something happened. Little by little, we lost our faith, and then we lost our way. We had not just lost faith in God, but also in ourselves. We gave over to others the right to decide for us, believing somehow, despite all logic, that they would somehow know better.
Why did we think they would operate in our best interests rather than their own? Honestly, why should we have expected anything else but what they did?
Those now in power had behaved rationally, logically. It was we who were insane. Why did we expect these new elites to have behaved any differently? If our opinions didn’t matter, then—singularly—our thoughts didn’t matter and, of course, if that were true, then our individual voices shouldn’t matter, either.
It was only when our numbers, and our opinions and our voices began to grow beyond the singular did they express consternation. If they didn’t care for our sounds or our words, they held even less concern for our lives, a fact they were about to confirm once again.
I had been the lone sheep bleating in the wilderness, and now the angry wolves surrounded me. We had all been sheep for far too long. Only in this instant, as I faced these final moments, we had been herded, directed, and driven, but never for our protection. It was quite the opposite.
What they offered us was not a path to safety, but to the slaughterhouse. And as a people, we went, willingly and gladly, happy to delegate to others the provision and responsibility for our happiness, and our security.
“So?” The scruffy man pressed, glinting at me with those rat-like eyes. “Do you have anything to say, yes or no? We haven’t got all day.”
“I do,” I mumbled. “I’m thinking. Just a moment longer, please.”
He responded with that same self-serving grin. It was the sly, evil smile of one who believed he had shredded the last ounce of dignity from a dead man. “As you asked so politely, I will grant you that extra moment. I do so want your last minutes to be…memorable.”
Please? I cursed myself. Why had I said that? Why “please”? Just being polite, even to the last, I rationalized, but perhaps that had been everyone’s problem. We’d all been too polite. We had all politely demurred, conceding silently to others’ points of view when we would rather have rejected them. Suddenly it was too late. Most of us were too middle of the road – too disinterested – to speak out. Instead of speaking up, we’d shut down. We’d gone along.
Rather than fight, we made the appropriate public acts of contrition. We did so to be polite. It was the politically correct, politically expedient thing to do. They took our insincere apologies and bludgeoned us with them. We thought of ourselves as civilized; we were wrong. It was laziness and fear that motivated us, not high-minded ideals.
We missed the point. As the apologies increased, so did the number of supposed victims and ridiculous offenses. Suddenly—and we didn’t know how—the meaningless acts became meaningful crimes, and we’d already confessed our guilt.
We who were the polite apologists—the achievers, the doers, the thinkers—we’d behaved as if it were all some genteel, academic debate. Just like Rome two thousand years ago, we failed to see that this time there really were barbarians at the gate, and we had unceremoniously opened the door. Only afterward did we realize our mistake, but then we turned not on our captors but on one another. We’d argued impotently over who had said what, or which of us should be held more responsible. Too late, we concluded we had met the enemy, just as Pogo had said, and it was us.
I shook my head at that seemingly ancient reference. Would anyone even understand it—or its implications—now?
I whispered again to my compère, “If you kill me, and those like me—those who build and create and hold civilization together—who will grow your food, who will make your goods, who will write your stories?”
“There any plenty of guns,” he said. “You have seen to that. And there are plenty of bullets, you have seen to that. And there are plenty of cowards who will do as we decide. You have seen to that, as well.”
As the man stood there sneering, a thought dawned on me, and I dared one final question.
“Why do you get to say whatever you wish, but I do not?”
“Because I—we—have spoken the truth, always. It was a simple truth; that all people must be treated equally, in all things, in thought, word, and deed. You and your kind lorded over us, talked down to us, mocked us, failing to see we were equally deserving.”
“We were not mocking you!” I said, without complete conviction.
He seized upon my answer. “But you were! Even if you want to pretend you weren’t, or even you didn’t realize it, you were guilty nonetheless.”
“Is it mocking you to say you must work for what you want?”
“Yes. We all have the same desires. We needed, we wanted—”
“But we earned it. We worked for it. You wanted it.”
“Is your effort greater than our need? Because you worked the fields harder, does that make our hunger mean less? No, it does not! These things were our truth, and we have revealed them to you so you might learn. You must share the bounty of your work because we need it. That is only fair.”
“But why do you get to speak your truth? Why are my thoughts not also ‘truth’?”
He smiled that same hard smile, a knowing smile, and looked deep into my eyes.
“Do you know what truth is? I mean, do you really know? Do you really understand?”
I looked at him with confusion writ large across my face. “I think I know the truth.” My words were as much a question as a statement.
“No, not think; know.” He arched a brow. “Do you know?”
“I don’t understand you,” I whispered finally.
“Then understand this.” He smiled again and paused for effect as he held two fingers aloft. “Just these two points. It is the difference between forty-nine percent and fifty-one percent. It’s what makes a cult into a religion, or the mob into the ruling class. That, my friend, is my definition of truth.”
I gaped in disbelief. So that was it? That was all there was to it? Was I being sacrificed on the altar of his truth solely for his version of democracy?
“Do not worry,” he said confidently. “Remember, ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’ In just a moment, you will experience our truth, and it will set you free. That much I can guarantee.”
I wanted to ask if he’d ever heard of Robespierre but thought better of it. “One day,” I muttered, “someone will come along and challenge your truth, and then you will be the one standing here, where I am now. Then what?”
He let loose with another broad, sinister smile, then laughed, but there was a harshness in his voice. “No, I think not,” he sneered. “We will not make your mistake. We will not permit any further discussion of our truth. This subject, as you might say, is closed. Now, your time is up. What are your last words?”
I stared at his angry face one last time, for my final millisecond before entering eternity. I saw in that split second the utter futility of anything I might offer in my defense. No one would hear my words. There was little else to say, save this.
“Rest in peace, America. Rest in peace.”