Dennis James Sweeney, Art by Elaine Whittaker


The New National Defense and One of Its Adherents

When the government opened sign-ups, people flooded in. Pregnant women. People of color. Bakers. Proprietors. Musicians with and without gigs. Ramshackle corn-fed rednecks. Doormen. Professional taste-testers. Shangbanzu.

  Into the buildings they had watched being built for the last fourteen months. Into the construction projects of unheard-of wideness and ambition. Into the new philosophy of the nation. Into protecting ourselves ourselves.

  There was of course an extensive interview process, a weeding out of the psychotics and the faithless. Extensive, whereby the entire scope of the white buildings built in every city was not defense itself but the examination of the defenders. The power of the system was that it did not establish centers. There was no striking point. A gradual contour to the invisible violence of the times. A memory pillow to the sharp edges of what can’t be seen. Behind it, the papers of the dead and of the living.

  Gal was named Gal because her last name was Gallagher and she in few ways resembled a girl. She, too, wished to put her name on the list.

  She subscribed to every viable news source, all three of which she read religiously in the mornings. The thought of a colorless button tucked safely in the crook of her collar bone made her limbs, though she would never admit it, feel electric.

  The government built flat, white buildings with windows tinted blue and the modest sans-serif claim, on the front, of National Defense. The firms entrusted with the new national philosophy did not take any chances with sensationalist branding. Its image did not ring but stood, unignorably.

  It was not the newspapers that dubbed the new system of national defense Defense By Trust. It was the government that did so.

  Gal did not recall it as a total breakdown of the old national defense but rather a feeling that weathered in meagerly, then substantially, until it left our tanks, our M4s, not burned but unoccupied. Bored, without a conceivable purpose, without a tangible direction.

  Gal herself was a target. Every citizen was a target.

  The enemy was no longer interested in killing men and women in the military. It was civilians who had done what was wrong.

  Where was Gal at the first blow? She was leaving school for the dentist, singing, shushed by her mother who was there to pick her up. She signed out without speaking, waiting to be told what had happened. She wasn’t ever told.

  A new national defense was predicted but no one thought it would happen. It was one of those things, the theorists thrown back into their leather chairs at their own prescience: no, it couldn’t be. This was special ops stuff, illusions of conspiracy. The theorists didn’t dare go out on the day sign-ups opened.

  The system was meant to be operational three months from the opening of the white modernist buildings. Gal hoped to be in the first wave of recruits. She tried to keep from herself the notion that the system might ever actually be used. Doing so was fundamental to her worldview, which she maintained was firm, realist, informed. When chaos is an option, it is difficult to take order for what it wishes to be.

  The sign-up lines on the first day were out the door. That was because the anteroom was the size of a closet, the rest of the building reserved for those who advance.

  Poor people. People who were seventeen years old and ineligible from the start. Car salesmen. Grandmothers. People who loved their pets.

  What would happen was that when the holders recognized a threat they would finger in a certain intricate way the button implanted in the concavity between their collar bone and trapezius muscle. When pressed, the implant would give off an indefensible shockwave, killing everyone within a fifty meter radius with a sort of instant cancer that would rupture the tiny, sensitive details of tissue that need to function at all times for life to go on. The perceived threat would thereby be eliminated by ordinary citizens. Painstakingly selected, special citizens who loved their country. Citizens who could be trusted. Citizens who could trust.

  Gal did not normally buy things the government said. She bought this, in her skeptical way. She anticipated them eradicating her skepticism. She had thought about it for a long time, in the emptiness of her apartment. She had decided, if they asked about erasing her doubts, what she would say. She had decided: that would be fine.

  The theory was that the hidden, walking bombs the government planted in the citizenry would eliminate all threats internal and abroad.

  Gal wanted to be a walking threat.

  The bombs would be entirely under the control of the holders, who would remain civilian, uninformed, average. Defense By Trust.

  The government shored up its capacity for trust by reminding each holder that life hung in the balance. Only in the instance of certain death would he or she pull the proverbial trigger. Therein lay the cushion. The government trusted its interview process.

  The new national defense was meant to take the piss out of the enemy. The idea that there were untold numbers of human bombs walking the sidewalks of the cities, driving the dirt of the back roads, was supposed to make the enemy wonder about the prudence of attacking civilians, capable as they were of mass destruction.

  Gal thought this would take the piss out of the enemy insofar as the enemy would begin to wonder what the point even was at all. With civilians more dangerous to themselves than anyone else could be to them. There would be peace through the imminent threat of self-immolation. A cold war of sorts.

  She got in her car and pulled away to drive the eight kilometers to the nearest National Defense building. The sky was blue like the buildings’ windows, as if the government had had a hand in the weather of the day.

  A kilometer away from the National Defense building, people were stopping their cars on the side of the road and walking the rest of the way. Gal let her car idle in the traffic. Then pulled onto the sidewalk and let her feet onto the concrete.

  They would now have thousands of human bombs walking in their midst, and it would make them unkillable. What good is a bullet on a landmine?

  The line snaked out of the white building. She waited for two hours next to a man with the mustache of a musketeer. Gal never had a boyfriend. This was why.

  It was a campaign, there was no doubt about it, but Gal was all right with that. She had decided it was time to put her knowledge to use. There was such a thing as a good governmental decision, she recited. At some point, you had to give yourself up to something.

  TV dinners, homemade spaghetti. She imagined them with the musketeer. He was here to be a part of something. Of what, Gal wanted to know.

  Of a network of humans wired to destroy everything, the musketeer said. Their threats and fears and dreams, what dreams are left. Each gram of paranoia in the collective soul.

  People who skip cracks on sidewalks. River guides. Pharmacists.

  Two hours was a small price. She wore her zip-up synthetic jogging top to look like a citizen, casual. Applicants were not encouraged to dress up.

  Gal watched the musketeer enter the anteroom. One person at a time. The man who held the door and conducted him in wore a sweater.

  She waited her turn.

  Gal straightened her back.

  Bartenders. Squash pros. Thousands and thousands of shangbanzu.