I think I am becoming accustomed to the sight of guns.
I am 33 years old.
I had seen guns before — in films, in America at Los Angeles International Airport, sometimes armed police showed up at demonstrations. But those guns were on special occasions, events or places that I’d gone out of my way to attend. And, because the situations were out of the ordinary, there were so many other things I was unfamiliar with there too, other things to direct my attention to. The plot of a film. Americans. Fellow demonstrators, symbols, songs. Guns were not part of my everyday life. Nor did I think they ever would be.
Recently, outside Scottish Parliament, which I pass every weekday morning on my way to work, there have been men with guns. The guns are huge and unmissable and unmistakable. The men are… aside from the uniforms and the guns, the men are ordinary. They are mostly white and they look like they’re in their twenties and thirties, occasionally a little older. I could say the same for my colleagues at the studio. They are all men. I could say the same for about 90% of my colleagues at the studio. They stand, and talk, and sometimes smile, and they hold guns.
The first time I noticed the guns, I felt physically sick. My heart rate sped up, I wobbled on my bike, and in my mouth I tasted the liquid that rises up before you vomit. The second time, I felt sick again. For a while it seemed like every time I saw the guns, every morning, I would feel sick. I guess this was okay.
I went to Nice, a city that I’d become a little familiar with a few years before. I’d left in January 2014 and returned in July 2017. It was beautiful, as I remembered it. It was hot, in summer, as I’d expected. The biggest difference was that everywhere I went, I saw men with guns. The guns were huge. The men were mostly white. They were all men. I’m repeating myself. I don’t want you to get the impression that the demographic of the gun-carriers is the only problem. It’s not that I want to see women with guns. It’s more that I have some questions about groups of people that are powerful in our society, groups that I suppose we are supposed to trust. It’s a question, or it’s a negative, an absence of sense. When I see armed men, I don’t feel more safe. Who does?
It’s the way that, in Nice, these armed men appear suddenly around corners now, without warning or explanation. You just see them, everywhere, every day. Back home, the men with guns are only at Parliament, or at the airport, or sometimes at the train station… In any case, the men with guns offer no explanation, as if an explanation is not required. As though the reasons to arm young men with deadly weapons and send them into picturesque, bustling, summertime town centres were so logical, so self-evident.
France is in a state of emergency, and has been since 2015, its longest uninterrupted state of emergency since the 1960s. On 14 July 2016, a man drove a truck into crowds celebrating in the picturesque, bustling, summertime town centre of Nice and killed 86 people. The state of emergency didn’t prevent that from happening, didn’t stop those people from dying. Perhaps it has prevented some other horror. I wouldn’t know. I did read that it had meant thousands of homes had been raided and hundreds of people placed under house arrest. What does it mean to be in an uninterrupted state of emergency for a year and a half? The word ‘emergency’ makes me think of catastrophic, unpredictable, definable events; fire is an obvious example. Is a whole country trapped in a fire that won’t stop burning?
So, I suppose you might think I’m being disingenuous about the men with guns. I know why they are there as well as you do. They are there because of the men with knives, the men with bombs, the men with trucks, the other men with guns. Of course.
If I hate the way that things have changed in the last couple of years, does that make me a conservative? In Nice, I rejoiced quietly at familiar things I’d liked before and still like now: the colourful houses and their shuttered windows, the sea, the pizza place. These things were still beautiful and worthy of celebration, but now there are the shadows of omnipresent men with guns, the memories of men with trucks and knives.
Instead of staying quiet, is it better to react in some way to the armed men everywhere? What reaction could possibly be fitting? An inconsolable, unending howl of despair. How can I speak of unspeakable things?
How can I find something constructive to say, to do, about destruction? In this world, is there space to mourn? What good would mourning do? What good can I do at all?
I think some of these are questions without answers.
After a couple of days of seeing the men with guns everywhere, I stopped having the physical sensation of sickness. I still felt scared, emotionally, but it grew more familiar. Less intense. More sad. More numb. How long, or should I say how short, a time might it take to become accustomed to the sight of guns? What else could a person become accustomed to? What other choice would a person have?
Can things go back to the way they were? I don’t think they can: not for the dead, not for the families and friends of the dead, which is all of us eventually, never. Can things change for the better? I think they can but I don’t know if they will.