I’ve only recently shaken off the trepidation associated with taking public transport after riding a local train through Atocha railway station on the morning of March 11th, 2004, but I still occasionally feel exactly the same kind of paralysing fear that I’m sure every Londoner, Madrileño and every New Yorker is acquainted with, if not every person in the world who is even cursorily aware of terrorism lore.

Photo by Christopher Doyle

Strapped into an international flight, delayed on the runway in Jakarta in November 2006, due to the fact that Air Force one was passing through the airport, I fixated on a Semitic man sitting opposite me who was holding a copy of The Economist open in front of him.

Working his way through the paper steadily, the man was spending an equal amount of time looking at each double-page spread. Eerily, he was staring just as intently at an advert for Continental tyres, and for just as long, as he was spending reading the longer pieces.

Over the space of about an hour, blasted with sleep deprivation, culture shock, beer, Valium and memories of the film, ‘Flight 93’, I’d convinced myself he was pretending to read the paper and was, therefore, attempting to appear like a normal passenger, when, in truth, he was actually a member of al-Qaeda.

In no time, I’d managed to work myself into such a state that I’d dismantled a pen I’d found in my pocket, and was vacillating between squeamish thoughts of just what plunging the improvised plastic shiv into the guy’s neck would actually feel like, and how to explain my suspicions to the stewardess without breaking down and/or causing some kind of paroxysm.

I even wrote it out on a napkin, leaving out the words, “let’s roll”. I was preparing to hand it off when the resignation to the fact that I was going to die began to set in. The only consolation was that in doing so, I would have a part in ridding the world of George W. Bush. This was surprisingly comforting.

At what point does social conscience become interference?

When I was 12 years-old, I witnessed what would now be termed a ‘racial attack’. Some might say I participated in it by proxy. Indeed, apparently “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

(Tell that to the Dalai Lama…)

A few seats down the bus from me, a friend of mine challenged a younger boy to specify his ethnic origin as among the people of one or the other of two neighbouring South Asian nation states; one of which he labeled with a racial epithet, the other of which he referred to with the standard demonym. My friend challenged this boy, the only non-Caucasian on a bus full of white people, clearly using the racial slur to antagonise him.

Another friend in attendance began laughing loudly and continued cackling throughout the provocation and the ensuing one-on-one fight. The public racial challenge meant that the onus was very much on the kid to escalate the conflict, and my friend certainly deserved a punch for his bigotry.

Should I also have been one to administer this, in addition to the kid’s justifiably violent reaction to what my friend had said to him? The answer is quite clearly in the affirmative: The influence I had with my friends was the power I had above and beyond that of this beleaguered kid.

A comment or an action from me may not have been able to stop the fight, but it would have certainly registered my horror and disapproval as some kind of ‘societal’ protest, and it certainly would have been easier for me to do this more effectively than he, and perhaps the fight could have been turned more in the kid’s favour.

A typically resonant line from ‘The Sopranos’ comes to mind here…

Character, J.T. Dolan returns to admonish the attendees of a Writer’s Guild seminar he has just been physically dragged out of by Mafia goons:

“An entire room full of writers, and you did nothing!”

I suspect people who weren’t on that bus are still disgusted with me for doing nothing. I don’t feel great about it. I think that the incident lies behind my obsession with ‘jobs’ that legitimise; indeed that require a passive, observatory stance. eg. writer. In both situations, I just sat there shocked into inaction.

I got off the bus well before my stop as a boy, and off the plane as a ‘man’.

I walked the rest of the way home in silence.

IMAGE: Screengrab from ‘The Sopranos’ from youtube.com

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Andy is a freelance magazine writer and editor from the North of England. He has rapidly divested himself of his life and reassembled it so many times in so many different countries over the last several years that he feels like his hair is on fire. He is at work on a novel ostensibly about the British Empire.

One response to “No Men Clue Chore”

  1. Andy Johnson says:

    2009-07-08 03:12:49
    Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom)


    I think you judge yourself way too much and too harshly. Just my opinion.

    2009-07-08 13:52:13
    Comment by Simon Smithson

    Ah, hindsight. When you’re there, shocked and trying to make sense of what’s going on, it’s easy to lose ideas of what to do.

    I’m with Irene on this one.

    2009-07-09 07:26:58
    Comment by Mary

    I didn’t comment on this right after reading it because it hits home, which makes it harder to say something insightful. I think I do these same things. I think what you’re doing is the best thing we can do in a way — just bring these thoughts and feelings to light and discuss them and hope we can gradually improve.

    2009-07-09 18:24:12
    Comment by tip robin

    this one got soul in it…

    2009-07-12 17:53:37
    Comment by Andrew Johnson

    Thanks for reading.

    2009-08-11 02:44:30
    Comment by lucie75

    it hurts,as your blog is so good, to keep coming across this repetitive “socially imposed stereotyping” which you embrace, in terms of your plane journey, and attempt to justify. i don’t find your self deprication endearing. you should also check your terminology.

    2009-08-11 04:20:23
    Comment by Andrew Johnson

    Thanks for your considered thoughts.

    I suppose ’semitic’ is overly biblical and antediluvian, but it’s tricky to clearly and quickly identify in prose an Arabic-speaking person who is not a white Anglo-Saxon, nor a Han Chinese person, in a place where the vast majority of the population are.

    I had to choose a term to justify the background for my terror, otherwise it wouldn’t have made any sense at all. A Native American in a backpack reading aloud from the Qur’an on a subway wouldn’t have scared the living daylights out of me, nor a Filipino pygmoid, but a dark-skinned, bearded man of North African, Arabian, Persian, or A.N. Other Assyrian/Babylonian/Mesopotamian ancestry pretending to read a magazine on a plane in the same airport as George Bush certainly did – due to socially imposed stereotyping. It would be great if it wasn’t a problem, but it is. It would be great if New York wasn’t largely racially segregated, but it is.

    “Arabic” is a racial delineation. Who is anyone to say what race someone is from just looking at them? I don’t know what ethnic origin the guy possessed. Even the word ‘ethnic’ is off, given that it designates someone who is “not Christian or Jewish”, according to the OED’s principal definition of the word.

    I chose ’semitic’ to describe the guy as a native speaker of a semitic language, according to another definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. I made a reasonably educated guess that this was what the guy was likely to be. I chose ’semitic’ because of its connotations of the earliest recorded migratory peoples speaking and writing the languages of ancient Babylon/Assyria. Information about these movements comes from a variety or sources, including the Qur’an, and is obviously religiously loaded – which also pertains to the theme of the piece: hence the nomenclature: hence the title.


    I think I’m being honest when I express regret for genuine akrasia during a racial attack against a person with antecedents in the Indian subcontinent, but as for the self deprecation, I think you’re much better qualified than I am to comment on that.

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