"An Edge in My Voice, Installment 55" copyright 1982, 1985 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.

This work appears online via special arrangement with the the author, Harlan Ellison. You can thank him by visiting the HERC Store.   Copying or distributing any part of this piece for personal use, commercial use, or any other use you can come up with is strictly forbidden.  Breaking this rule will result in the author coming down on you like the proverbial Hand of God or, barring the author finding out, your being forced to spend 15,000 years in Purgatory watching the same three episodes of "Perfect Strangers".

An Edge in My Voice

Installment 55
3 January 1982

They killed him because he cared too much. He hurt no one but himself, and no doubt his dedication had driven him past the point of socially accepted behavior; but his death brings shame to us as a nation, because it demonstrates that both common sense and compassion have been leached out of our national character to a degree heartrending to consider. We are, finally, no better than Richard Nixon, who went to the windows of the White House, saw hundreds of thousands massed in the streets to protest, snickered, and went back to watch the Super Bowl.

I tell you his name because it has been just two weeks since Wednesday, December 8th, and you've already forgotten who he was: his name was Norman Mayer, he was a mad saint, and he loved us enough to die for our sins.

He was the man in the blue jumpsuit and motorcycle helmet who, at 9:30 AM, Eastern Standard Time, drove his white 1979 Ford van up close to the main entrance of the Washington Monument, stepped out, and began a ten-hour act of humanism that culminated at 7:23 PM with his needless death.

Professionally-lettered on the side of Norman Mayer's van was a placard that read #1 PRIORITY: BAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS.

He drove past the Park Service rangers, a little more than two weeks before Christmas, the time of celebration of the birth of a Prince of Peace, and he handed one of the them who had come running a manilla envelope on the outside of which was written his determination to speak only to a reporter . He told the ranger he had 1000 lbs. of TNT in the van, and if we didn't begin a "national dialogue" on the threat of nuclear weapons, he would reduce the 555-foot-high obelisk to "a pile of rocks." He held in his gloved hands what the saturation tv coverage kept referring to as "an ominous black control box."

It was, in fact, a harmless joystick mechanism used to fly model airplances. There was no "radio gear in the knapsack."

There was not, as any fool with common sense knew from 9:30 AM on, even one stick of TNT in that van. Nor, as simple logic would have shown, was there ever a moment's danger from "the menacing terrorist who held the Monument hostage."

Everthing he did, from the moment he pulled up to the obelisk, till the moment he lay handcuffed to the steering wheel of his van, shot four times and dying from a bullet wound in the head, was the action of a compassionate man who understood just how bloody we have become. And who gave his life to prove the point.

At seven AM Los Angeles time on that Wednesday morning, after having written all night and being unable to sleep, I was tuned to Ted Turner's Cable News Network, as the first live on-site pictures of the "emergency" broke in on regular telecasting. I saw the van tight to the main entrance of the Monument, I listened to the explanation of what had happened, was happening, and the first thought that came to me was, "It's a bluff. He hasn't got any dynamite in that truck!" I knew it. Common sense dictated the conclusion; it didn't take a Sherlock Holmes and deductive logic to know the truth. Everything the man in the black helmet did led one's reason to the conclusion. It was a bluff.

Within an hour of the start of the siege, the police and FBI knew who he was. They knew he was an old man, 66 and deeply committed to the banishment of nuclear weapons. They knew he was no international terrorist, no crazed killer, just a wild old man trying to make a point. More important, they knew that a half ton of TNT would barely scratch the surface of the Monument. But property is more important than human life.

He demanded nothing for himself. No ransom, no great sum of money, no fast plane to take him out of the country, no release of Red Brigade assassins. He merely wanted us to talk. He just wanted to plead with us to expand the dialogue. He was as one with the millions across the world who have marched and pleaded this last year. Marched and pleaded for the right of the human race to live out its days wihtout the mushroom-shaped shadow blighting our joy. Yes, he was an extremist; yes, he was bereft of his senses; but he did not deserve to die.

Within a few hours his actions bespoke that intention. Had there been a scintilla of compassion, rather than macho posturing, in any of the authorities handling the situation, it need not have ended as it did. But there was none. Not on the part of Associated Press reporter Steve Komarow, who spoke to him five times; not on the part of Capt. Robert Hines, commander of the Park Service police, who preened and pontificated before tv cameras like on of those satraps on a road repair crew who is given the red flag to stop traffic and becomes a martinet with that puny power; not on the part of the White House advisors who moved Ronald Reagan's luncheon out of the room facing the Monument. And not on the part of our noble President who, like Richard Nixon, saw what was going on and shrugged, and ignored his responsibility.

And when, shortly after seven o'clock that night, Norman Mayer came to his senses and was terribly frightened by his own boldness, and tried to flee, to return to the anonymity from which he had emerged...they blew him away. When the first FBI special agent reached the van, the old man was lying there mumbling, "They shot me in the head."

And no one has protested the violence. He deserved it. He was a threat. He was a terrorist and we can't bargain with terrorists. "We couldn't take a chance he'd be driving around Washington in a van full of TNT," is the standard explanation for his death.

But common sense would have informed the conclusion that there was no threat, that there was no TNT. Common sense and a dollop of human compassion would have softened that killing posture. Had he been a man with death in his heart, he would not have walked into the Monument at 9:30 and told all the tourists, "Please leave quietly." He would have held them as hostages. He would have threatened the SWAT teams with instant explosion of the mythical TNT if those seven people tried to walk down the 555-foot structure. But he didn't. He asked that they be escorted from the Monument by Park Service rangers, and some of them even nodded to him as they passed him. He nodded back. I saw it on the news.

Did the police and the FBI even seek the advice of a good psychologist? Did any of them sit and sum up the realities...not the maybes and the what-ifs...just the realities of what Norman Mayer was doing? Nowhere in the reports do we hear of such action being taken. Just the gunslinging bravado of the O.K. Corral. Ending in the hail of rifle fire that killed old, crazily-committed Norman Mayer.

Were we not one with Richard Nixon, someone would have said, simply, "He wants to make his point. He wants to be heard." And in my deranged fantasy I see them telling Ronald Reagan that one of his people is in pain, is hurting with fear so much for the rest of his species that he wants a chat. And Ronald Reagan would have said, "I understand. Let's take a walk." And he would have crossed that short distance across the Mall, and he would have walked up to Norman Mayer, and he would have said, "Mr. Mayer, I understand what you're trying to do; but this isn't the way to do it. You're scaring people, Mr. Mayer. And you're getting yourself in terrible trouble." And Norman Mayer would have been amazed that for the first time his existence had been validated, that he would have put aside that pathetic model airplane control box, and we would have walked back to the White House for a cup of tea and a quiet conversation with the leader of his nation, who had demonstrated that even the least of his countrymen was worth postponing lunch.

But that's a fantasy. And kindness is a fantasy. And common sense in the face of cocked guns is a fantasy. We are a nation of SWAT teams and too little open conversation.

I know I am foolish to suggest Ronald Reagan might have had the personal courage to end the "emergency" by bold leadership. I hear the snickers and the repeated phrase, "We couldn't take a chance," even through they knew they were in no danger of the bluff being genuinely threatening. I know I am alone in feeling that there was something noble and courageous and infinitely humane in Norman Mayer's act. Nevertheless, I have cried for him since I saw them open fire on his van.

And I cannot but consider the irony of his having died so near a monument to the President who said, "If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."

SANE is worried that Norman Mayer's strange behavior might "tarnish the image of the entire antinuclear movement," but in every progression of social reform, from Joan of Arc to Martin Luther King, it is the mad behavior of a John Brown or a Spartacus that demonstrates the depth of angst most of us can only pay faint obesiance to.

Norman Mayer was presented to us by tv and by the authorities as a bad man. He had been arrested in Hong Kong in 1976 for trying to smuggle a small amount of marijuana; he was a drifter and a low-class hotel handyman; he had been jailed for civil disobedience distributing antinuclear leaflets on college campuses in Miama Beach; he had tried to buy dynamite in Kentucky; he was a deranged fanatic. All that may be so...and common sense tells me it is so. But as I see Ronald Reagan seeking to discredt the Antinuclear Movement in this country and across the planet, I cannot fight back the certain knowledge that Norman Mayer was a Great American. He died as he lived, futilely, but at least for me his death was a martyrdom that illuminates with a sickly pallor the cowardice and inhumanity, the inflexibility and disregard for the plight of our people that keynotes Reagan's administration an the Imperial Presidencies that hae preceded it.

And although I know you won't, I would be remiss if I did not suggest that at this holiest of holiday times, whether it be Christmas or Channukah, that you light one extra candle this year. For Norman Mayer, a sad and driven old man who cared enough to take a few too many steps in our behalf.

Maybe that should be two candles. One for him, and one for us. Because as Norman Mayer knew, we are in terrible danger.

"An Edge in My Voice, Installment 55" by Harlan Ellison, copyright 1982, 1985 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
In case you missed the warning about copying or distributing this piece at the beginning, just don't do it, okay.

Please send comments, queries, or tattling to webmaster@harlanellison.com.