One year ago I was off work sick with the remnants of a thundering migraine. I was cleaning. I always clean when I'm sick, unless I'm so sick I can't stand up. You don't need to be able to think straight to clean, you can do it in a state of undress, and if you need to throw up, shit or lie down every ten minutes, the dust isn't going to complain. Workmates would.
That said, I was reaching the end of my tolerance. The room kept sliding upwards, darkness falling downwards. Just the floor, I whispered to my brain, just the floor and then you can lie down. I stumbled, one hand to my chest, a feeling of sinking despair in my mind: something terrible has happened. Cold sweat and sucking fear, a crushing ache around my heart. I swallowed and pushed it aside, like I always do. Once I used to worry about what it was that was happening that was so terrible, but not any more. It's just a panic attack, formless and without origin, and they come and they go and they mean nothing.
And I clean the floor and I go to bed and I fall into an ugly, black sleep full of twisted things a little too lucid to truly be dreams and when I wake up again its to the phone and Damian calling me to tell me: you should switch on the news. Because, yes, something terrible has happened.
And it's pretty fucking terrible. For the next two weeks I turn into a huddling news junkie like the rest of the world, hopping from fact to fact as if they were stepping stones to take me back to the light. I'd given up watching the news when I stopped working for Oxfam, and it had been a joyful moment. I'd thought, it's not my job any more. And now here I was, back again, holding my hands out to the hearth of the emerging world consciousness as if it could tell me anything useful, anything real. I plugged smoothly back into the weltsmertz, smoothly like I'd never left, all the old coping mechanisms I created during the time I was writing communications about the Rwandan genocides popping neatly back into place. I papered over the cracks with stories of hope and progress, looked up the statistics to remind myself that the world is getting better, despite the best efforts of all the misguided fuckers who want to bomb it back to the stone age. And I'm an artist, of course, that gives you a natural advantage. Artists can always do something, you see, no matter how bad the situation. I recovered, though I still watch the news too much. I healed.
And my premonition of disaster? Just a bit of psychological mind-mugging, the neurotic equivalent of telling someone they're creative but thwarted or have a scar on their knee. You say something terrible has happened? Of course something terrible has happened. Something terrible is always happening.
All over the world, every minute of the day, every second of every minute in every hour, something terrible is happening. Hollowed-out people are committing murder, rape, and suicide. Family types are terrorising their lovers, abusing their children, cheating on their friends, beating their wives, and driving their parents to suicide. Someone out there is contemplating genocide, and someone else is working to achieve it. Thieves are stealing food and medicine from starving children and dying communities, bandits are shooting aid workers, millionaires are diverting all benefit from those not as cruel, determined or lucky as they are into their own bottomless pockets. There's a war going on out there somewhere, and if there isn't there will be people who think there is, and their soldiers are murdering, raping, torturing and dismembering anyone holding fewer weapons than they are. Something terrible is happening. Tell me something I don't know.
That was what made me leave Oxfam, in the end. Not the deaths and natural disasters, not the governmental corruption or the environmental destruction, not the famines and the monsoons and the endless floods. It was the brutality of ordinary people in times of unrest; all the people who, when war is declared, grab a machete and dismember their neighbours, put on a hat for one side or the other and go on gang-rape sprees, or spend days torturing their enemy's children just because they can. Could I blame them? Or is it just something we all have inside ourselves, something that might snap and leave me up to my elbows in blood some day? And, if that was true, what was I saving?
So I left Oxfam, and came here, to do something straightforward and honestly trivial and the world reached out two fingers of pointless, spectacular brutality and flicked me back into the world arena. I couldn't get over how personal it felt, as if this had been spent specifically to bring me home. I even felt to blame. Stupid, but there you go.
But I stuck to my guns and remained trivial. There's no shortage of people who want to save the world, no shortage of people who are far less ambivalent about it than I am. The world is getting better, and though progress is slow, fast social progress brings its own dangers.
The bar has been raised now, for terrorist acts, and I suppose the next step could be that people start setting off suitcase nukes. But on the other hand, whatever knocking down two tower blocks and throwing a plane at the Pentagon was supposed to achieve, it palpably didn't. No crippling blows were dealt to any nation that day, and the supposed enemies of the terrorists (The World? America? Rich People?) were not impressed or terrified, they were initially confused and appalled, later angry, ansty, trigger fingers itchy, ready to do some damage and not altogether bothered about who got in the way. There was no benefit to it for the terrorists, or for the people they claimed to be representing. And if killing c. 4,000 people and knocking down two of the tallest buildings on the planet in one of the biggest and best-supplied media centres in existence won't do it, what will?
Perhaps this was the terrorist act to finally prove beyond doubt how utterly pointless acts of terror are. I can hope.