Final Breath (2002)

I grieved that the wasps would suffocate. But not the al Qaida cave dwellers. Was I a modern barbarian? 

a wasp in midair

WHETHER THE WASP had shot up from its hole or dived from the blue, I didn’t know. This much I knew: My power mower had threatened its underground nest, and the angry drone had let me know with a jab to my hand.

The stinger of a wasp is not easy to ignore when it’s lodged in the fleshy fold between index finger and thumb. Four Advils quelled the pain; ice eased the swelling.

But neither Advil nor ice could chill my lust for revenge. One way or another, I would get even. No one had to remind me that the wasp had merely acted in defense. But I couldn’t be bothered by a nature lesson; I had a score to settle. If that meant snuffing out a colony, so bee it.

a barbarian holding a sword in one hand, a portable phone in the other

a barbarian holding a sword in one hand, a portable phone in the other

I had always felt a buzz when watching a film where an innocent victim wrought vengeance. But not vengeance misdirected against fellow innocents. How could I? The Bible had banned blood feuds, the once-common practice of going after the offender’s family. For most of my life I had imagined that all post-Biblical avengers played by this rule.

My fantasy was shattered in 1985, when a U.S. airliner was hijacked by members of the Lebanese Hezbollah. (For scholarly details, rent Delta Force.) One hijacker raced down the aisle, shouting, “New Jersey! New Jersey!” 

“I’m from Joisey,” a passenger smiled. 

“The New Jersey’s guns murdered my family!” cried the hijacker. He was referring to 1975, when the U.S. battleship had shelled Beirut with 16-inch rounds, each the weight of a Volkswagen. Putting a fine point on his history lesson, the Hezbollite pistol-whipped the Joiseyite.

When I read the account, I was an innocent of 28. Clearly, a prankster had rewritten the ending. In my script, the hijacker holstered his handgun and smiled, “But since I aspire to be rational, I won’t take out my anger on you.”

Now I was just another Hezbollite, a Hatfield, a suicide bomber, a religious partisan—in short, a petty avenger against all my enemy’s kind. 

No, wait: It wasn’t about revenge; it never is. It was self-defense. As long as the nest remained, wasps would be an ever-present threat, like Hitler’s Jews. Like the Jewish Question, the nest called for a final solution.

A Hole—and a Colony’s Fate—are Sealed

Dusk would soon arrive, and the drones would return to their hole. I jogged to my woodpile, up-ended a massive log, and “walked” it to the hole’s edge. Then, from a safe distance, I waited. From every corner the drones converged, descending the hole menacingly, I thought, like the winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. I waited a quarter-hour, until every last drone had disappeared underground.

my infamous log, entombing the wasps below

my infamous log, entombing the wasps below

It was show time. I stole up to the log, and with three heaves, covered the hole. “Pleasant dreams,” I mused.

But it was I who couldn’t sleep. Thanks to me, an entire colony of wasps would never again see sunlight. Like the Russian submariners who would later perish in the sunken Kursk, the hapless insects surely knew they were entombed. One by one, they would die a slow, horrible death. 

Nature had not prepared these simple creatures for a catastrophe like this, an adversary like me. I lay in bed wondering what it’s like to crawl about in pitch darkness, struggling to breathe as though through an ever-narrowing straw.

What had I done?

Czech Mates

Marlon Brando as Kurtz in Apocolypse Now, the 1979 film version of Heart of Darkness.

Marlon Brando as Kurtz in Apocolypse Nowthe 1979 film version of Heart of Darkness.

A sickening self-knowledge gripped me, a feeling new, yet familiar. At the turn of the twentieth century, Belgian overlords in the Congo had used slave labor and torture to collect more ivory and rubber. During high school I had read the accounts in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the barbarous evils were inflicted by the depraved Mr. Kurtz.

Now, as I stared at the dark ceiling, my lips were whispering Kurtz’s final words: The horror! The horror!

If this epiphany left any doubt that my conscience had a dark side, the doubt was soon erased by events across the Atlantic. During the Bosnian war, I had followed press accounts of the Serbs’ genocidal bloodbath against Muslims in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia. As the survivors fled, many Serbs became squatters in their abandoned homes.

NATO bombing turned the tables. When the Serb army retreated, the Muslims returned to reclaim their homes—and butcher entire Serb families. To my astonishment, I “understood” the Muslim rage. True, in targeting their fury against families, they went too far. But I lost no sleep.

My conscience was descending the slippery slope.

The horror! The horror!

If It’s Holy War They Want…

Three years later, my nation went to war with the militia that had launched the September 11 attacks that took the lives of so many civilians. In the aftermath, I joined the 7 million Americans whose lives are hijacked by panic attacks. In Stage 1, each breath becomes a conscious decision. In a full-out, Stage 3 attack, you feel you’re about to die and may even hope you do; symptoms can mimic a heart attack, and the emotional distress is far worse. I endured eight 30-minute attacks before being delivered by a daily 20 milligrams of Celexa.

By November, the al Qaida holy warriors were hiding in the Afghan hills. That month, as I began this essay, unmanned U.S. aircraft were firing missiles to seal the caves and tunnels where the extremists were holed up. Many who were trapped inside died slowly, like my wasps. I felt my conscience prick back to life.

After a U.S. warplane dropped a 15,000-pound “daisy cutter” doomsday bomb, the terror-stricken terrorists were heard on their radios, crying like girls. At this news, my conscience fully returned; there was no need to panic these men to death. I felt like air-dropping them a CARE package of Celexa.

Two months later, a new hideaway was found. U.S. aircraft began smoking out its tunnels with huge, two-stage thermobaric bombs. The first explosion distributed an aerosol of fuel; the second detonated the fuel, sucking out air—and life.

While I’m horrified by the means, I’m grateful that the end came in a flash, not a suffocating whimper. If my wasps deserved a humane end; so do men, even if they be terrorists.

But wasps are driven by instinct; men are moral agents. These men chose to pledge jihad, to murder civilians. They would make the same choice again, and again.

That’s why, this time, you won’t hear me whispering Kurtz’s parting words. It’s not about what the enemy did to me, or to us. It’s about what they would do again, if we would give them the chance. 

Which we won’t, if it takes my last breath.

©2002 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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