Short Story: “Call to Action”

Act, don’t react.

“Call to Action”
by P. Orin Zack
[5/09/2008]

“It’s coded,” Flynn said in hushed realization, his finger arced towards the wall screen over the noisy restaurant’s bar. “I’m certain of it.”

Tony lowered his reuben and turned to look. An ad was running, the slick come-on for the former president’s newly organized mega-church. “What’s coded?”

“That ad. They’re using subliminals.”

The room was too noisy for either of them to hear the smarmy voice-over clearly, but like all good propaganda, the message was carried in the visuals as well. The pitch had started with a rousing patriotic rush of flags, jets and other emotionally freighted icons, interspersed with a thickening mélange of religious imagery, all of which coalesced into the church’s name and logo.

When the ball game resumed, Tony turned back and quietly took another bite.

Deep in thought, Flynn swirled a limp French fry through the last of the ketchup on his plate. “That montage…” he said idly. “That montage was far too busy not to have had some covert crap layered into it.”

“I don’t know. All I got out of it was a sudden yen to get all cuddly with the ex-pres. Not that he’s my type, or anything.”

Flynn grimaced at the image his friend had conjured up, and laughed. “Not that any man is your type, you mean. But that’s my point. It’s too effective. There’s something hidden in that pixel soup that burrows into your brain and fiddles with the controls.”

“What, and you’re surprised? I mean, think about it. The right-wing wackos have been kit-bashing politics and religion for years. That self-appointed spokesman for the über-daddy that he claims told him to start a few pre-emptive wars all but put the two together as it was. The only thing new is they’ve given it a name, and they’re having a membership drive. The so-called terrorist threat they conjured from an old spy shop phone book after 9/11 to scare their Christian base was exactly that: a blending of politics and religion. Hell, their favorite boogeyman is their own reflection. So why not do a mash-up?”

“It’s dangerous, that’s why.”

Tony had his mouth full of reuben again, but he managed to ask for an explanation anyway.

“You have to ask? The founders knew how dangerous it was to mix politics and religion. That’s why they prohibited the government from granting any of them special status.”

“Oh, come on, Flynn. The guy’s not in office anymore. And besides, it’s not a government-sponsored religion.”

“It might as well be. You just saw it. Joining his new church is everyone’s patriotic duty. But like I said, there’s something else going on in that ad. I’ve watched it so many times now that I’m beginning to see it in my sleep.”

“Sounds like a good reason to stop.”

Flynn ate the last of his potatoes. “Actually, that’s a good thing, believe it or not. I do some of my best thinking when I’m logged out. All that random stuff I’m always reading bumps up against the problems I gnaw at during the day, and some pretty amazing things pop out.”

“Oh? So what did the sandman tell you about that ad?”

“Only that it’s kind of a push-me-pull-you.”

“The two-headed antelope from Dr. Doolittle?”

“Uh-huh. I think there’s a counter-subliminal layered in as well. So I suspect someone on the inside is trying to subvert the new church’s message.”

“And this… second subliminal,” Tony said, self-consciously glancing around the room, “what’s it about?”

“That’s what I’ve been puzzling over. If that second layer is intended to short-circuit the effects of the first one, the attack would have to be pretty specific.”

“Great. So what’s the countermeasure for—.”

A screech of tires and a resounding thud stilled the room. Someone near the door shrieked.

“What was that?” Flynn said, squinting into the doorway’s glare.

“Car crash!” The voice was anxious and a bit frightened. “Quick. Someone dial 911.”

An earnest-looking man at a nearby table said, “Done,” and grabbed his cell. He calmly reported the crash, giving the name and address of the restaurant as if he’d done it a thousand times. Then after listening briefly, he said, “Okay, I’ll go look. Hold on.” He had just reached the register when the people crowding the doorway gasped and stepped back, revealing a very angry man with a gun in one hand and a terrified hostage in the other. Two other men, both younger than the gunman, followed him in, and closed the door behind them.

While the gunman, who was clearly the leader, demanded that the manager lock the door, his two lieutenants told everyone to get up and move towards the back. The guy talking to 911 was only a few feet from the leader by this point, and he asked what was going on, holding his cell out like a mike. The gunman knocked it from his hand. “Back off,” he said threateningly. “Join the others by the wall.

Even though the crowd was only a few feet behind where he sat, Tony slowly rose and joined them. Flynn, however, remained seated.

“You,” thug number two said as he approached. “Up. Get over there.”

Flynn looked solidly at him, his heart racing. “No. I’m already near the wall. There’s not much further I can go.”

A slammed fist rattled the plates. “I said go!”

Phone-guy approached. “You heard him, get up.”

Thug two straightened and slowly turned. “Who put you in charge?”

“I’m just trying to avoid an incident.”

“It’s a bit late for that,” Flynn said tightly.

“Listen up, everyone!” The gunman was near the now-deserted register. Thug one stood behind the hostage, pressing her arm up behind her back with one hand, and covering her mouth with the other. “Do what we say and nobody gets hurt.”

Thug one yelped. She’d bit him.

“Don’t listen,” she cried. “They’ve already killed—.”

He spun her to face him, wrenching her arm behind her, and pressed his free forearm hard against her throat. “One more peep out of you…”

Phone guy pointed broadly at what had just happened. “See that? She’s their leverage over you. They’ve got one hostage, and have no qualms about killing her.”

“Who do you think you’re kidding?” the gunman said. “You’re all hostages. Now shut up and get back there.”

“Cops ought to be here any time now,” he said as he crossed the room. “What are you going to do then?” Then, to the captive crowd, he said, “They know they’re not getting out of here. They’re desperate. They’ve already killed someone, and they’ll do it again unless we stop them.”

“Half-right,” the leader growled. “We’ll do it again if you try.”

Sirens filled the air. The police had arrived.

Flynn, still seated, watched as thug two returned to the leader, his non-compliance unpunished. There was something about the whole scene that kept bringing him back to something from the ad. It was relevant, somehow, but the details eluded him.

While the gunman and thug two spoke quietly near the front of the restaurant, phone guy started working the crowd of frightened customers and employees at the rear like a Shetland sheepdog. He paced back and forth along the line, encouraging them, prodding them with a few words here and there to band together, and demanding that they as a group fight back if their captors made a move to harm any of them.

To Flynn, it felt like he was raising an army. He glanced at the gunman by the door, and then at phone guy. He was looking for followers. He wanted to lead the opposition. He was drumming up support, and it looked like he was starting to get some recruits, judging from the subtle change in body language among them.

“Hey!” Tony stage whispered.

Flynn turned, pre-occupied.

“He’s got a point, man. If those jerks try something, we’ve got to be ready.”

A siren bleeped a few times, and then someone began talking calmly to the leader through a bullhorn. The police had set up outside, and the gunman started to pace.

Meanwhile, phone guy had gathered his new minions and was issuing orders, planning their unarmed assault on three increasingly desperate criminals. The whole tableau reminded Flynn of the events following the destruction of the World Trade Center, when the president rallied a thoroughly shocked country in support of his ill-defined military escapades abroad.

The ad they’d watched earlier came on again. But this time, the only noise it competed with was the distorted voice blaring on the bullhorn. Flynn could hear the voice-over clearly. The former president’s plea was a call to action, just like phone guy’s. Only here, the ever-present ‘enemy’ was lurking just beyond sight. The dreaded ‘enemy of Democracy’ wasn’t just people in some other country. The new enemy, he said, was all around us. It wasn’t a nation we were fighting now, but an ideology. The nation’s armed forces would be useless against it, regardless of which party was in power. So the only choice left was to band together for the common good, just like the founders did a few hundred years ago. Our patriotism, he said, needs to grow beyond national borders. It needs to become a power in its own right, and to do that they had founded the new church. So the clear duty of every American, he asserted, was to join the new church.

Treason and heresy, united at last. Flynn felt sick.

“Get over here!” Tony was insistent.

“No. I finally decoded that ad.”

“Are you nuts? We’ve got a killer in here with us, and you’re busy analyzing a stupid ad?”

“I don’t know who it was that sabotaged that ad, but they’re right.”

“Right? Right about what?”

“Defusing the fear machine. Look. They’re trying to scare everyone into joining their alleged church for exactly the same reason that guy who called 911 wants to raise an army in here: followers inflate a leader’s power. But it won’t work. Puffing up alpha leaders may be the way to stage a standoff, but regardless of who wins, the people caught in the machine still lose. You just swap handcuffs… replace one leader with another. The real problem is the social structure. It’s still a game of domination. And that’s what we have to change.”

Tony glanced at their captor, who was standing in the doorway, yelling obscenities at the cops. Thug one was beside him, displaying their hostage. Thug two turned around and approached phone guy. “Does that mean you think rushing them is a bad idea?”

A sharp crack filled the room. The leader had shot their hostage through the head. Thug one let her drop to the floor.

Phone guy yelled, “Now!”

His followers lunged for thug two. As soon as they’d grabbed him, the gunman turned and shot phone guy as well. While he was distracted, the police rushed in and overpowered them both.

Flynn took an unsteady breath. He watched numbly as the police, paramedics and reporters in turn went about their respective jobs. Each was intent on accomplishing their tasks, but their focus was on different parts of the problem. Working jointly, they accomplished a great deal in a short time. “That ad…” he said, weakly.

Tony didn’t reply. He was gaping at the pool of blood by the door.

“The mole in the propaganda machine laid it all out in that ad, but it was intentionally ambiguous.”

“What?”

“It’s… it’s like what just happened here. Responding to a threat by mirroring it, by matching it, leader against leader. The people are just pawns. You can’t defeat an organized force by playing their game. All you end up doing is creating a new enemy… one that controls you.

“So, what we need to do about that new church isn’t to go to war against it, isn’t to organize something just as big and ugly just to face off against it. The trick is resistance. Guerilla tactics are harder to counter. The important thing is for everyone to have the same goal, but to go about it separately.”

Tony waited a while before speaking. “Can we go now?”

“I think so. Yeah.”

THE END
Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack

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