What Can We Do Once We Lose Our Freedom?

We started gmail and we surrendered the final shred of privacy. We used the net and opened ourselves to every hacker, most of them those we elected. We read of the twin towers and were alarmed; we saw the beheadings and were rattled. Those we elected rattle us often and hard and by reflex and in all sincerity and – as in the case of asylum seekers – in the sincere anxiety that we might unelect them. Once thoroughly rattled we allowed our governments to suspend habeas corpus. We are each of us now, all citizens, all merely Mohammad Hanifs, awaiting the knock on the door of our terror police.

Terror has triumphed. As it usually does. Terror wins when we pay heed – as we need to; it wins when we panic – as we need not.

So what can we do once we lose our freedoms?

I saw an odd movie a score or more years ago in which an Orwellian change had occurred and citizens were forbidden to own books. Books were collected and burned. Publishers were taken away for re-education. The Good Book says: ‘Of making books there is no end.’ But this was an end.

A few resisted, silently abandoning the cities, coming together to meet in the forest. Here each escapee became a talking book. One became ‘War and Peace’, another recited ‘Animal Farm’. Those whose mental muscles were less hypertrophied recited ‘Ozymandias’, or ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, or the Twenty-third Psalm. All these texts threatened the regime that murdered thought. All reciters risked death but inherited life.

Back here in my real life. I resolve to read poetry every day. I’ll rescue myself and succour others.

She Would Not Look at Me

Only three days following the fall of the twin towers the Israeli author and journalist David Grossman wrote a thoughtful piece that was reprinted in The Age. The first and always casualty of terror – he wrote – is trust. You do not trust your fellow citizen, you feel you cannot afford to. Your neighbour of yesterday might be your enemy of today. Community is the casualty.

In the happy isle in which I live and move and work, terror and war and conflict are seldom seen. Insulated as we have been we could afford still to trust – long after other communities had been rent apart into fractions and fractious factions. So it is that when I go to work at the hospital for sick children, one half of my children come from homes where the first language is not English. There is a bridge of trust between us, where we meet and work harmoniously. Fifty percent of the non-anglophone families are Muslim. The parent looks at me, sees an oldish man in a skullcap. That adult thinks whatever she thinks but receives and returns my asalaam aleikum courteously.
Sometimes cautiously, often gladsome, the adult moves towards me across our bridge of trust and we meet. Minutes later, the old man in the yarmulka is no longer an infidel, a foe: he is just a person who understands the child’s illness and who cares about that child and can help. My guest sees in the Jew a fellow human.

Now the children of Abraham are locked in cousin conflict again. My first Islamic parent identifies himself as Ibrahim. He smiles at his cousin’s greeting and returns it.
Later a tall dignified woman, taciturn, her head veiled, her face exposed, meets the doctor who will treat her child, with evident displeasure. She has no smile. Her daughter’s earache, which has been distressing, is easily diagnosed and will be readily relieved. I know I can help her and within minutes I have. The child is five years old. She does not speak,a mutism that can be explained by shyness, by a lack of English, by illness, or by family custom. But her mother, face tight throughout, spares few words and no smiles for the doctor. After I have explained the nature of the illness, its treatment and its happier future course, there is no thaw. I express the hope and the belief that the child will be soon well, insh’allah.
No smile.
There is a war.
The bridge is broken.

When I was six

When I was six the teacher said: “We’re going to learn a poem today. It’s called Ding Dong Dell.”

I knew that poem. Surely everyone knew it. But I’d also heard a Revised Version, much better than the original. I think it was my elder brother who taught it to me.
I said: “I know that poem”

“Good boy, Howard. Please recite it for the class.”

So I did:  

“Ding Dong Dell

Pussy’s in the well.

‘How can you tell?’ 

‘Go and have a smell.’”

 

It was funny but Mrs Paulette did not smile: “Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. Leave the class. Go to the storeroom.”

 

I went to the storeroom, a narrow room lined with shelves stacked with classroom necessities. 

I stood there alone and listened to the silence. I felt a thumping, fast and hard, in my chest.

I knew perdition. I knew exile. I knew terror.

I stood in fear and misery. When would a captive be released from the storeroom? How would Mum know where to look for me when she came after school?

 

A sound at the storeroom door. I shook harder. The door opened and I stopped shaking. I knew the face, the freckles, the buck-toothed grin, the red, red hair. I knew my older brother Dennis.

“What are you doing here, Howard?”

I shook my head.

Dennis went to a shelf and selected a piece of red chalk, one of blue and a white one.

“What are you doing, Dennis?”

“Mr Frobisher sent me for chalk.”

Dennis opened some packets, discovered a treasury of pristine plasticine. Methodically he peeled off thick strips and pocketed them.

“Does Mister Frobisher want plasta too?”

“Nope. I do. You can have some. I’ll leave a bit for you.”

Dennis left.

I looked around and saw riches. I saw Aladdin’s cave. I saw opportunity.

I touched nothing. I stood and trembled at my own thoughts of wrongdoing.

 

A sound at the door. Mrs Paulette’s face and pony tail and round bosoms appeared in the narrow space. I saw what she must see, the open package of plasticine. I saw the signs of theft and I thought  – not of Dennis’ actions – but of my own wicked impulse.

 

Mrs Paulette said, “It’s recess, Howard. Go outside and play.”