The footage was amateurish, the colors so faded it could have been black and white. The video compression gave the movements an accelerated, frame-skipping pace, while the areas where there was no movement were swaths of shifting translucent squares. There was no sound. Whoever had shot this must have been hiding and filmed the whole thing with a hand-held digital camera.
Next to me at the table, fellow analysts looked at the projector screen with expressions of mixed disgust and incredulity. And overemphasized seriousness, I though, as my eyes scanned one cleanly shaven face after another, the ties immaculate, all in business attire, conforming to the extent of having become indistinguishable from one another.
I returned my attention to the screen just as a bright flash appeared on the right-hand side, where the blurry, darkened shape of a human being was standing. As it faded and the eye of the camera reopened, we saw that the flash had emanated from something that was resting on his shoulder.
“This is what we have to deal with now,” said Stern, a giant of a man with a booming voice, who would look more at ease, surely, in a wrestling ring than in an ill-fitting suit in an air-conditioned government building.
Something dark was arcing the sky, fading into its uneven grayness as it approached what looked like a small camp at the top of a hill. An observation post, Stern informed us, in southern L.
Nothing. Everybody at the table held their breath, knowing what would follow next yet refusing to believe it.
And it came. In the blink of an eye, the light gray building, listening antennas on its rooftop, burst into a giant fireball that dwarfed the initial flash, radiating pure whiteness and making us recoil from the digital cataclysm.
When it regained its senses, the camera revealed a burning mass of concrete. In the foreground, where the dark figure had stood, two others had joined it. All three seemed to be dancing and congratulating themselves, one waving a tattered flag of the readily recognizable fist holding an assault rifle.
The screen went blank and we all stood there, transfixed, in silence.
Stern’s deep voice brought us back to the present. “Iranian. In recent years, Tehran has been selling them these weapons. Some are US made.” His English, though immaculate, had an European accent I could not place, the same type of elocution that characterized the other agents who had come with him to brief us. “These videos,” he said, “ have begun being sold at bazaars and markets all over the Middle East. In fact, the one you’re watching and the copy we’re giving you [a CD] were purchased at a grocery store in Gaza.”
“Terrible,” my supervisor, a giant baby doll, blond hair and all, said.
“Shocking,” her favorite, a banker-looking type who in fact had once worked in that sector, said.
Stern’s eyes went round the table, seeking confirmation of the unacceptable as we had just witnessed on screen. I looked up. All eyes were on me as I realized I was the only one who hadn’t said anything. But words wouldn’t come; something was wrong with me, as if a mechanism inside me had malfunctioned, blocking a reaction. I stared at the screen, onto which were projected — visible to my eyes only — scene after scene of buildings, cars, neighborhoods incinerated from above, murder of far greater magnitude that what we had just been shown. At least those three men had risked their lives, had had to be close enough to their target to fire at it, and the target had been military. In the other scenarios, the ones only I could see, the great majority of the victims had been civilian, including women and children — the great majority of them, in fact, women and children, babies, the unborn. And whoever had rained terror down upon them had done so from twenty-five thousand feet, safe from harm and far enough to be spared a glimpse of the consequences. So what if the organization had acquired shoulder-launched missiles from Iran, some made in the US? What difference did it make, really, when their opponents had technology and means orders of magnitude beyond that, Falcons and Apaches and drones with million-dollar sensors attached to their million-dollar gifts of death, capable of annihilating dozens of lives from a distance calculated not in meters, as we had just seen, but rather in kilometers, at the click of a button? Disgusted? Horrified? Scared witless? How risible that was, theater in which we all knew we were actors, the script preventing any independent thought — bar that, not theater. A puppet show, rather. At least in theater, the actors, though following a script, nevertheless retain the capacity to emote, to personalize the expressions. We were puppets, all of us, also following a script but the expressions on our faces fixed, immutable. And the strings animating us had grown so long that one couldn’t even begin to imagine who the puppeteers might be.
These men, Stern and the others, were salesmen, prophets bringing a product to the faithful, the converted. But who needed them when the customers were already sold to the product. Why all the charade, three pilgrims sent thousands of kilometers to preach the gospel to those in no need of convincing, knowing fully well — and expecting nothing less — that all, with no exception, would play the part as per the script written long ago. Did they believe in the utility of their presence? Did we?
Eyes boring into me, a terrible emptiness opening beneath me, threatening to swallow me. Sweat was beading on my forehead, lakes forming in my armpits. Yet I felt cold, so cold. My supervisor, most of all, cast me this look, the same trace of annoyed disgust that reshaped her face whenever she and I didn’t see eye to eye on something, which happened frequently. What a disappointment you are, I could hear her think. We had high hopes for you, but you just don’t seem to get it. The accusations, the condescension, I’d heard it all, the volleys of missiles fired at me time and again. “Moral relativism,” she said, they said, using the self-righteous accusation of the mindless against leftists, intellectuals, artists, those who had different opinions, who chose to question the paradigm. “That’s why you don’t get it.” But I did get it, much better than all of them. They were right, of course: moral relativism is, in fact, fundamentally flawed. But what they failed to understand is that while there was no room for moral relativism in what Camp A was doing to Camp B, we’d chosen the wrong side and like sheep were cheering for the camp that was slaughtering the other, or when it wasn’t doing that, it was busy destroying the other’s livelihood on a massive scale. To hell with moral relativism indeed!
“Excuse me,” I said, getting up and leaving the room in a hurry, as if one of those missiles were chasing me, threatening to disassemble me, to incinerate the very molecules of me, of my soul, my being. I swiped my card, typed the four-digit code on the holographic panel and ran outside, feeling like spilling my guts right at the foot of the national flag.