being in london, i took advantage of the cultural hub in this city and attended the theater ‘shakespeare’s globe’ today. in a time- and culture- crossing manner, the play ‘holy warriors’ portrayed the israel-palestine conflict from the age of salahaddin and richard the lion-hearted all the way to george walker bush’s declaration of war against terror. apart from the acting being thrilling and taking, the political message being brilliantly portrayed in a heart- and mind- provoking manner, and the show being simply one whole piece of mastery, there was a moment in the second act that took me back to a memory of visiting iraq.
in the second act the play turned from a historical setting of sheikhs and sultans, kings and knights, to men in suits and camouflaged uniforms. the fighting stayed the same. they just swapped the sword for a gun. and even though it was a show, and even though the guns were obviously plastic, when i saw the ak47 on stage i remembered the first time i actually felt fear crawling down my spine in iraq:
it was a late night and i had already broken all the rules in my long list of things that i acquired traveling alone of ‘what not to do as a woman traveling alone’. i was out with a man i had only met a few hours before, it was dark already, close to midnight, and i had no one in immediate reach that would be aware of me leaving the bar with him. but, i was hungry! and to my personal pacification, my gut sense about people so far has proven quite reliable. so i joined him for a midnight snack. and, granted, nothing happened really. we had a delicious falafel wrap and a nice conversation on the way. it was only when we sat there, chatting, that i saw a man approach. he looked like a normal guy. rather small in posture and not significant in any manner. but, i would also not remember much of him as it was his friend, that he had conveniently put his arm around, that i was eying. it was an ak47. not plastic. no show.
i still remember like it was yesterday how i saw him stop at the same falafel store where we were sitting, how i tried not to stare and him and distract myself with the ongoing conversation. but i also remember how i failed in all of these things. particularly once we were done eating and got up, i remember how the moment that i actually had to turn my back to the stranger holding this messenger of death fear made me shiver. at any point, in just a single second, just out of fun or just because he can, this man could end my life right there and then. the thought frightened me. and at the same time it irritated me; even in the most excited moments, apparently, i still maintain my inner scientist, asking for the why and the how and the so what.
why? the thought that intrigued me most about this man with the weapon and my reaction of fear to it was the following: it was not the first ak47 i had seen since coming to iraq. in fact, the more i thought about the more i realized that not one day had passed without me seeing at least one armed man. so why did i feel afraid? was it me turning my back to him? maybe. not that shooting from the front or from the back makes any difference to the outcome. but why was i never concerned about turning my back to the others i had seen before? the answer is simple and obvious: because they were wearing a uniform.
how? so what is it about a uniform then that suddenly makes me not react to a loaded weapon? how does this work? after all, these are also just men on the street, some strangers i don’t know, that could just find fun, or pleasure, or something i can neither explain nor think of, in shooting a red haired girl on the street. is the belief in the integrity of a public-‘role’ one occupies as a quasi-parallel universe next to the private human being one ‘truly is’ strong enough to make me trust the man in uniform over the man in jeans? apparently.
so what? but if the uniform is a sign for a public-role, an office, a profession; and if this sign of public-being makes me feel more trust towards the person holding the gun, what does that mean for studying ‘regular’ (military) and ‘irregular’ (private-man) armed forces? in my personal thought process, it raps up in the idea of what we call ‘legitimate use of violence’. assuming that the man in uniform is able to fulfill the role he is given by the authority of the state to conduct violence ‘legitimately’ over any urge of personal lust or want of using the same violence ‘illegitimately’, we assume that any behavior of ‘our’ (civilian) side that complies to the law (which is not the source of legitimacy but the definition of what is legitimate/legal) will be treated and reacted to in an equally ‘legitimate’ manner. the gun is the same. the options for acts of violence are the same. and yet, there it is, my moment of fear from the one and not the other; my proof of the strength of what we can not measure and can not mechanically create – what we call ‘legitimacy’.