Somewhere, everywhere, a girl is taking her clothes off. This much was true…But something else, she thought, was also true. Somewhere, everywhere, a girl was being raped. And the question was: how far away? How far away did something have to happen before it stopped being your responsibility? How far away did a rape need to be? Two streets? A country? A separate universe?
Adam Thirlwell, “Nigora”
Earlier this year while walking around San Francisco, a friend and I happened to pass a small group of men. They were just standing around, probably arguing among themselves. I don’t even think they were panhandling (and San Francisco panhandlers can get pretty aggressive), but what’s important to note is that they were minding their own business.
Once they were out of earshot though, my friend leaned over and said, “I really wish I had my gun right now.”
“Why, so you can feel all macho and shit?” I said, my futile attempt at making light of the awkwardness.
“No,” he said, his voice dropping a few notches. Paraphrasing: “It’s because if there happens to be someone out there who can make you dead, then you would need to protect yourself.” Then he went on about being in the army and learning about people. Had I been more sensitive about it, I could have called him out for his condescension or his tone of addressing me as the naive third world bourgeois hippie to his older (by a year), grittier American military man.
Whatever I had to say to that had been shocked right out of my system. Now it appears that, over time, I’d developed a reputation among my friends as something of a pacifist because I now foster kittens and I cry a lot. When I hit people (like, with my fists) they actually look hurt (they probably are), but I am altogether not a typically violent person. But there and then, I said nothing because I felt that it was no use to argue with someone whose idea of conflict resolution was possible with a bullet.
“Make you dead,” who even talks like that? That was my fifth time in San Francisco, fourth time traveling around that city alone, and third time staying in or within the vicinity of the Tenderloin, but the funny thing about fear is that you don’t actually feel it until someone else brings it up for you. There is definitely a problem with gun control, but it runs even deeper than policies and media representation. There is a huge problem with what everyday people seem to think guns are for.
But I also remember thinking about how guns were fixed into the illusion of safety I had gotten used to as a long-time resident of Metro Manila – where even McDonald’s and Starbucks branches were patrolled by armed guards. I didn’t even notice the guns until a friend from Singapore (and later other friends from New York and San Diego) pointed them out. There is unspeakable horror in having a gun in your face, but there is a comparable measure of violence in being conditioned not to notice the assault rifle hanging at the hip of the person who greets you at the door of your friendly neighborhood coffee shop.
It’s absurd and backward to think that we in the Philippines are better off because at least we don’t have to deal with mass-shootings on the scale of Sandy Hook or Columbine. Do we shoot children here? Of course we do. That we care more about “whose children” or whether the children are in the womb or in a preschool only points to how deeply fucked the situation is. This is still a bastion where feudal lords can maintain a well-greased system through private armies and coddling by public servants. (And then there are the extremes that develop when the mere fact of having a name, of being known, becomes such a luxury. The Filipino people who are known, who have the gall to say, “Do you know who I am?” not as a question, but as a threat, what the hell are they known for besides being known.) It’s in the false sense of community and it’s in the walls we erect to form the landscape.
This is still a place where we can find virtue in identifying with the anonymous multitudes, hence “maka-masa”, thus glorifying our own nameless, placelessness–or as an acquaintance put it: mediocrity, i.e. “yung simple lang”. When we see nothing wrong with anonymity, we become just as likely to play dumb when it comes to disappearances. When we fail to see the inhumanity of and in our own ignorance, it becomes acceptable not to know; thus making it impossible to talk, to engage any arguments, or to resolve anything.
This is still the worst place to be a journalist, not for lack of material, but precisely because of fear; because not only are bylines negligible in a place where people don’t really care to (or just can’t) read, but the people behind them are equally dispensable. Imagine that the people who are supposed to set the record straight are the ones who have to live in danger from day to day. Imagine the leftover evidence we will have to settle for and the kinds of stories we in turn end up telling ourselves. This results in a different kind of violence altogether, but it’s violence nonetheless; and imagine the culture that results from having to live with that, day in, day out, for decades on end.
Thirlwell, Adam. “Nigora,” from The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith. first published in The Guardian, 2007. NY: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Group), 2007.