Sit back a moment. You live in a small town, or perhaps no town at all, out in the countryside in Madison County. You know your neighbors, no matter how far away they might be. Close your eyes. Listen. What do you hear?
Do you hear birds chirping (in the day), or the chirrup of crickets (in the night)? A rustle of leaves as the breeze picks them up? Do you hear your children playing in the yard, and would it occur to you to be afraid just because you cannot see them as the leaves twirl in a tiny circle?
Now, you’re in the city. Washington, DC, let’s say. Perhaps you own your own tiny house, perhaps you rent from someone you’ve never met. Listen: above the ever-present traffic, an explosion. Probably just a car backfiring. Or kids, playing with firecrackers. Are they just playing, or are they harassing some old man? Or was it gunfire? When you awake tomorrow morning, will there be a dead man on the steps to your apartment? Now, no more than a few doors down, breaking glass. Hear it? Just someone dropping a beer bottle in their garbage. Or a car window breaking… or a house window. Listen next to the squeal of braking tires. Perhaps a crash comes, perhaps it doesn’t. Footsteps. Is it someone walking past the sidewalk? Is your housemate home? Is it just some homeless guy taking a piss in the three-foot alley between your house and the next? Some woman squatting where the bush used to be in front of the house next door? (The neighbors got tired of her hiding in their shrubbery and taking a shit, so they cut it down… and she just keeps right on doing it in the open where the shrubbery used to be.) Now there’s a low-flying jet and you don’t know what’s going on because you can’t hear anything over the roar. And when the roar dies down, a helicopter flies low over your apartment. It sounds like it’s making an alley run right between your apartment and the neighboring apartment.
These are the sounds of the city. Every night, every day, every night, you hear them. Most people just ignore them. They drown them out with music, with headphones, with earplugs, or they simply let their brain stop processing the noise. Every healthy person has these sorts of defense mechanisms against unfaceable reality. Without them, it would be a very sick world indeed.
In Washington, DC, there lived a quiet man, a man without these defenses, a quiet man in the midst of the city where the loudest people in the United States gravitate because nobody else wants them. The Greeks ostracized their trouble-makers to other parts of Greece, and paid for it in the end. They wrote the names of the trouble-makers on ceramic shards, and the winner was sent away for ten years where as often as not they returned early with an army of outcasts. In the United States, we ostracize with ballots, and send our worst citizens to a swamp on the edge of the Atlantic. It isn’t ten years, but we’ve paid hell for that all the same.
Washington, were it part of a state, would be in Maryland, part of the south. Maryland was Union in name, but not in heart. When the southern states began their secessions, Maryland’s legislature was evenly split, until the Army imposed martial law in Maryland so that the capitol would not be cut off. Then, say the Southern museums, Maryland provided as many soldiers voluntarily to the rebel side as they provided by conscription to the Union. The official song of Maryland—adopted in 1929, forty years after the war ended—is an undisguised call for Maryland to leave the Union. The first line:
The despot’s heel is on thy shore, Maryland!
His torch is at thy temple door, Maryland!
Avenge the patriotic gore That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore, Maryland! My Maryland!
alludes to the federal troops marching through Baltimore and fighting the pro-Southern citizenry. On April 19th, 1861, “the patriotic gore” left four Massachusetts soldiers and twelve Baltimore citizens dead. If you want to sing it, try “O Tannenbaum.” The governor called a special session to discuss the secession issue. They didn’t hold it in the capitol because the capitol was occupied by federal troops. The special session ended without any major decision (except writing Lincoln and complaining about the occupation of Annapolis) when federal troops arrested the pro-Southern members of the legislature in early August.
That the capitol was in the south at all, rather than at Philadelphia where it started, or New York where it almost went, is a testament to the deep and abiding mistrust between North and South in these United States. It was a political deal between a Southern planter and a Northern businessman. Which was too bad for the Confederacy. If it weren’t for the capitol’s location, Northern politicians would have been at least somewhat less fearful when neighboring Virginia went rebel.
Frank J. Holmes wasn’t called the Quiet Man because he was quiet. He was loud enough when called to voice his opinions and his needs. But from others he preferred silence, and boy could he be loud requesting that. His need for quiet wasn’t the only odd thing about the Quiet Man, but it was the one that fit least with living in the city. It’s no wonder he went mad. But it’s hard to tell if he went mad because of the city, or went to the city because he was mad. In any case, it was the noise that finally triggered the end of even pretending to be sane. The endless sirens, and the honking, and the yells and screams, and the car alarms.
Car alarms. Too many people have no idea how to set their car alarms. There should be a law about it, or a license required to own one. We require a license to own cars, why not car alarms? He thought at first that it was mostly the same cars, after all, how many stupid people could there be in the world? So he bought a pack of 3x5 cards. Whenever an alarm went off he’d track down the car and write the license plate down on a 3x5. The plan was to keep track of the exact times each car’s alarm went off. Then he could call the police and say, “Look! This car’s alarm goes off every night.” That the police didn’t likely care didn’t occur to him. It didn’t work out unfortunately for his plan (though fortunately, in the short run, for the police): he ran through the 3x5 cards pretty quickly and rarely came to the same car twice.
He concluded from this that there were far too many stupid people in the world, and he began to plan a way to do something about it.
For Frank J. Holmes, everything and everyone had their place in the world. This could have been a beautiful sentiment. Instead it was a rigid belief: everything and everyone should, as far as he was concerned, remain in its place.
He’d once had a roommate. (He’d once had a girlfriend, too, hell, he’d once had friends, but that was a while ago, and most of them had since moved out of the low-rent end of Adams-Morgan.) They’d met through a mutual acquaintance. It would be hard to call them mutual friends; the acquaintance had warned that the Quiet Man could be “trying” to live with.
The first real evidence of this occurred in an argument over brooms and boxes. The Quiet Man had been seething for a long time over a box that the roommate was storing in the broom closet next to their broom. The box had been there a week, and while the roommate knew that there was something wrong in the broom closet, when he snuck a look inside, all he could see was the broom and the empty box, nothing out of the ordinary.
Both the Quiet Man and his roommate worked at Cubit Communications. One day when the roommate was sitting at home working via computer modem to the office on a rare brilliantly clear and warm day in DC, the Quiet Man stormed in and called him into the hallway.
In the hallway, the broom closet’s door was open, and the Quiet Man stood there with his arms folded.
“Look,” said the Quiet Man.
The roommate peeked into the broom closet. He saw a broom, a bucket, and his box.
The roommate nodded slowly.
“Do you see?” asked the Quiet Man.
The roommate thought about nodding yes and then going back to his room and locking it.
“I don’t think so, Frank. What’s the problem?”
“Isn’t it obvious? What’s in the broom closet?”
“Broom,” said the roommate. “Box. Bucket. Ah! Everything begins with ‘B’. That’s a Bad thing. I’ll just take this Bucket and move it to the Basement.”
“We don’t have a basement, and it isn’t about the ‘B’. You’re being silly.”
Not as silly as you’re about to be, thought the roommate.
“Okay,” he sighed, “what’s wrong with the closet?”
“There’s a box in it. It’s a broom closet.”
The roommate nodded. He nodded again. He shook his head.
“I don’t get it.”
“Broom closets don’t hold boxes.”
“What’s wrong with it?” his roommate asked. “It’s big, it only has a broom and a bucket in it.”
“You just can’t do that,” he replied, fingering his 3x5 cards. “It’s a broom closet. It’s for brooms. Boxes have to know their place.”
“Boxes have to know their place? What the hell does that mean?”
“I mean, boxes have their place, and brooms have their place, and a broom closet cannot hold boxes.”
His roommate sighed.
“All right, let’s put it in this closet here.”
“No! We haven’t got enough room in the house. It must go outside. That’s where boxes belong!”
“Look, if it goes outside it gets wet. There’s certainly enough room if we don’t put the broom closet off-limits just because it has broom in the title. The box stays in the house until I’m sure I don’t need to return the computer that came in it.”
“We’re running out of closet space,” said the Quiet Man. “We can’t be storing boxes.”
“Look,” said the roommate, “perhaps you can’t, but I can. I’m using less space here than you are anyway, Frank. I can use a little of my space for a stupid box.”
“What’s this sudden worry about who is using more space?” the Quiet Man demanded. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, if we’re really running out of space, maybe it’s time we started rationing our space out?”
It was hardly a losing battle for the roommate, as most of the closet space was filled with electronic and army surplus gadgets that had long since stopped working, except for the one closet full of a year’s supply of toilet paper that only Frank used.
“It has nothing to do with space, it’s a broom closet, boxes don’t belong there.”
“You just said we were running out of space,” said the roommate.
“We are,” said the Quiet Man.
“No, we are not,” said the roommate. “If you decide to throw out the box, I’m going to bring it back. That thing cost me twelve hundred dollars and I’m keeping the box until I know I’m not going to have to return it.”
The Quiet Man didn’t listen: he took the box and put it in the garage underneath his piles of army surplus cartridge boxes filled with different sizes of nuts, bolts, and screws.
The roommate locked the doors of the house until he could decide how dangerous the Quiet Man really was. He decided that it was time to start thinking about moving out and then unlocked the back door. Neither one really mattered. The Quiet Man often bragged about how easy it was to break into his own apartment, and occasionally about how easy it was to break into his friends’ apartments.
When the Quiet Man returned, the roommate took the box back out of the garage, and put it in the closet across the hall from the broom closet.
When the Quiet Man saw this, he said, “I’m getting tired of your immature behavior.”
The roommate looked at the Quiet Man realizing that he had probably made the wrong call in not double-bolting the doors and leaving them locked. Later, the roommate found out that the closet directly above the broom closet was empty. Except for the Quiet Man’s empty shoe boxes from two years back, and a folded cardboard box that had once held a 25 inch television set.
The roommate moved out soon after. It was all right with the Quiet Man, the roommate didn’t belong. Boxes and people, both had their places. Boxes and people were all the same thing to him, and this roommate didn’t fit the box. None of them did. One of his past roommates had even had a cat and the Quiet Man didn’t get along with that either. Truth was, though he never admitted it, this side of the Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge was not somewhere the Quiet Man belonged. But it was the cool place to be and he liked to think he was cool. He thought it gave him an edge at Cubit Communications that other programmers didn’t have. And in his spare time in his cool Adams-Morgan flat, he had his own dreams of programming. He’d had others. Previously, he spent a year designing an enterprise information system for use on the company’s terminal-based computer systems. He tossed that out when an idiot in data processing installed something called “Gopher” on the system, a piece of software developed at a University somewhere in the Midwest and given out for free, which allowed the company to leverage other information systems on the new Internet. What he’d been working on for a year this guy did in two hours in his sleep. For a couple of days he thought about rewriting his year’s worth of computer code into a ‘back end’ for creating Gopher menus, but gave up. There wasn’t much point, and management didn’t care any more about his system once the free system was working. That one almost threw him over the edge. A whole year of programming! But the fact was he hadn’t been paying attention. He figured as long as he didn’t tell anyone anything about what he was working on, no one could steal it from him. He hadn’t realized that the Internet was poised to change that: if one person on the net is working on it, someone else somewhere else in the world is also working on it. All it needed was an information management system to make it accessible. Usenet and e-mail provided one, for discussions. Gopher provided another, for static information, such as texts, theses, and novels.
But it wasn’t an Internet protocol named after a college mascot that set him off for real. By my reckoning it started with the car alarms. I don’t know whether to blame the Quiet Man or the people that use the damn things without knowing what they do. You’d think they think they’re the only people in the world. Can you blame him for going insane? The wonder is that we all don’t. Two sets of people in the world then, those who use car alarms, and those who are insane. The insane fighting a desperate, losing battle, against car alarms. (The more reasonable among them fighting a desperate, losing battle only against poorly set car alarms.)
That’s what made him a hero at first. When they put together the car bombs with the 10-items-or-less killer they started calling him the Quiet Man just like his friends did, making his friends very nervous.
Car alarms. He must’ve fantasized about it at first, like others did. Taking a bazooka outside and blowing it through the radiator and into the engine block, to the applause of his neighbors. Driving a tank over the car from the trunk on up, the car alarm the last thing to die squealing after the tires had already popped and the windshield exploded in candy-glassed fury.
But his fantasies didn’t just run towards action, he fantasized about plans as well. And logistics. Get in, do the job, get out. It is, in theory, very easy to be a terrorist in America. Everything you need is in your local supermarket. Forget dynamite or gunpowder. Forget guns. Guns are too difficult to use, don’t kill enough at a time, and (with the admitted exception of the Quiet Man’s Washington DC) run too much the risk that someone else more independent than law-abiding has one stuck in their purse or under their pants. No, guns are the least of our problems. Americans keep the most technologically advanced toys of any country in the world. We all keep and bear weapons of extreme destruction, down almost to the homeless and drifters on our streets. We carry gallons of it in our vehicles, and what we don’t carry we pump into our homes. Gasoline. Power tools. Natural gas. High voltage. Every home has them. The most deadly killers in the world this side of water.
And all it takes is a spark. A few wires, a battery (usually provided for you) and you’re set.
From the Quiet Man’s flat to the Adams-Morgan metro stop is about a fifteen minute walk, ten if you’re hyperactive. Five minutes further and you can relax at the National Zoo if relaxation is something your temperament can handle. It’s free, though a bit rundown. You get to see some of the best captive animals in the world this side of a corporate cubicle.
The Quiet Man’s foray into terrorism required a bit more than a few wires. He required a more targeted approach. Cruise missiles up the tailpipe. A couple of transistors and switches. The car alarm comes on, the device is armed. The car alarm switches off… five… four… three… two…
And that’s that. Ten cars. Ten devices. Two explosions, two dead, and four injured on the first day. Saturday morning, February 27, 1993, the day after the World Trade Center failed to crash to the ground, Washington DC discovered the car bomb. There were the usual calls for rounding up all Arabs and ‘detaining’ them for ‘questioning’. Long-term questioning behind barbed wire. Others thought it a good chance to go after the National Rifle Association. After all, they didn’t see their way towards banning gas tanks in February of 1993. Start small, then move to the big stuff.
But cooler heads prevailed, and instead of concentration camps and crackdowns they got the six o’clock news and the official spokesperson for the DC police.
“Don’t panic,” said the police as Washington’s non-elite ate their dinners. “Keep your cars out in the open and if you use a car alarm have your vehicle inspected by trained mechanics. We have no reason to believe that this is the start of a campaign of terror. We don’t even know for certain if this is a terrorist act or an alarm malfunction.”
“Hell, let ’em panic,” said everyone else. “Maybe they’ll turn their damn alarms off.”
Which they did. Sunday morning the twenty-eighth of February, the Quiet Man slept in peace for the first time in months. But not because it was quiet. There were still other noises. The city went on its way and the lack of car alarms didn’t stop the bottles and the screams. He slept because he’d done something about it. The Quiet Man slept and dreamt of power.