I knew when he said he couldn't come to the embassy something was up. As the Political Man it was his job to carry no delusions or ideologies (though he'd pretend otherwise, of course) except for the practicalities of executing power. And I knew from times before this was one clear eyed son-of-a-bitch.
We gathered in the back room of a temple - his territory - as is so often done here in the Middle East. The room was a place normally reserved for High Discussions, where local leaders would line the room and vie for justification. "Baby tremors" I'd call them. Get enough and you've got a full blown earthquake. The Political Man got straight to the point.
"We're calling off the Festival of the Harvest."
"But why? You can't! It's the most important event of the year. The people will not stand for it. You don't need me to tell you that!"
"We must, because of your bombing policy."
"What? You think we'd bomb that? We have no intentions of ever doing that - and that's both on and off the record. Even we couldn't stand that many civilian hits."
"Yes, that is exactly why you must bomb it."
"These are absurd times."
"Look, doing something that stupid would endanger our entire droning program. There are voices of opposition, you know."
"Weak voices, simple voices, disregarded as we would the thoughts of children. But we are, as you say, "old school" you and I, and know we must never harbor an open mind."
"Argue all you want. It's never going to happen."
"You realize, of course, we'll have to blame the festival's cancellation on somebody. Not going to be us! We will lay it directly at your feet. Who would disbelieve us when we say your out-of-control drones force us to cancel to protect our loved ones?"
"I see. So you plan to blame us for an outrage one way or the other."
"Precisely. Your policy has been profitable to both sides, no? You get your so-called terrorists and we keep hate and fear alive. Do I need tell you those two emotions are the bedrock of power?"
"We can only tolerate the generation of so much resentment. We're not completely insane. How much more power could you possible need?'
"'Resentment', such a mild word. Let me ask you: In your country, do you only seek limited power? Do you wish to control only so much? Are you going to say to your unreasonable people who demand absolute safety your hands are tied and nothing can be done?"
"You are a devil, aren't you?"
"Even a devil can serve God. We will provide rich targets for you, headlines for your paper. Do you want history to record you had an opportunity to destroy your enemy but refused? What happens when those same men come to your shores? We can make that happen."
"All this, killing your own people, making this sordid deal, just so you can have a little more power."
"Each life must have a purpose. Look at our streets. Do you see purpose? We provide a cause, a direction. Pointless lives will rally. This will give us the control we need. Do you want the extremists to take over our government? Either we point them towards you or they point towards us. I would think two strikes would be sufficient for our needs."
I marveled at his slow tightening of the noose, of using our duplicity against us, of pulling us further and further down the slippery slope, daring us to refuse. I'd faced this sort of serpentine logic before, but I knew in the games of power today's outrage would be tomorrow's standard operating procedure. But what bothered me most was I'd heard this same serpent's voice before, giving me the same sick, sinking feeling. Except that voice was on "my" side.
"Look, we're not going to set policy according to yours or anyone else's agenda. Any concerns you have will be addressed as we see fit. You presume too much, sir."
"Do not insult me with fantasy. Your hearts are as clear to us as ours are to you. On both side are fools who believe they serve God. But they are not the decision makers, these public face puppets. If you wish to play that role, so be it. We'll go on without your say. Our voices victorious in the end."
I was reduced to throwing blind punches. "A victor leading an army of anger? Who's being short-sighted now? They'll turn on you like anyone else."
"Let me put this another way. I shall tell you a story of a man who rose up among us. He had - what's the word - charisma, yes. He was very popular both high and low and he was named head of the harvest festival.
"But this charming man was naive. He starts the ceremony dressed in red and protests with the Walk Of Rape. This is very inflammatory, very daring. He says women should be able to live without fear and our boys have gone too far. But this man, he puts our boys who protect us in danger with these words."
"Not to mention your power."
"Precisely. Good of you to understand. We were forced to silence this heretic and that night some angry youths obtained his address and burned his house and family to the ground. Naturally, we blamed outside agitators. The man served a useful purpose, after all. Are you understanding what I'm saying?"
"I understand but I don't like where this is going."
"As I said before, we are "old school". We do not tolerate criticism nor tolerate weak points of view. We are here to maintain order, to preserve the status quo - at any cost. To do elsewise would be to admit we are failures as a society."
The ice had cracked under my feet, I just couldn't fight anymore. My balance teetered under the weight of his infuriating logic. He knew he'd stripped me of my armor, leaving me as exposed as a newborn baby. He looked quite pleased with himself this crafty scorpion. Fuck it.
"Oh, I get it. You're an asshole. And you can go where all assholes go!"
"Did you not stop to think why I picked to meet with you when so many others of higher ranking are available? I know of you. I seek to know of all men dangerous to me. You spoke against your drone policy - and spoke well. But then that's how you got ejected from your capital and posted to this faraway outpost. Your house, so to speak, was burned to the ground."
It's true. I'm a man without a country, isolated and powerless, the perfect pawn in a chess game I cannot win. This odorous little man delighted in my squirming. Maybe even he made up all these demands just as some sort of twisted mind game. I was stuck reporting back to my masters with a message I'd choke on. God damn these political people - please!
Paralyzed, not wishing to move or have the moment end, my head was spinning, my stomach burning and my heart sinking. His final face was one of stone, impenetrable like he posed his heart to be. Time to slide in the final knife, he supposed. Time to take the pawn off the board and put it in its place. All because I wanted to make a difference.
"There's only one way, isn't there?" His eyes failed to blink. "Look throughout history and tell me you see anything else." His head swiveled like a robot's, with a hideous Mona Lisa smile. He knew he ruled men who'd refuse a mother's love.
But that's when I snapped with a small smirk of my own. These men of power think they own me. They want me to fight useless battles, filling my heart with rage. Countries are an illusion of the past. It's only people living alone here; some filled with hate, some not. These men who've climbed to high places know they will fall, be exposed as traitors, when we come together as one. A foul fisher of men's souls this eternally arguing snake be!
The decision was obvious: just let it go. What a relief! The weight of the world lifted as I freed myself. I couldn't help but smile a winning smile - and that's when he knew he'd lost me. The man literally toppled forward as if to reach out to grab me. I'll never forget the look of terror in that terrorist's eyes. No bomb attack would he ever fear, but to be left to himself...
Stepping back into the noisy dusty street, it was as if I were stepping out of a movie theater as I faced this burst of reality. Damn, it felt good to be back in the sun!
CODA: I never did return to the embassy, instead booking a flight directly home, leaving the world to those left behind.