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