March 8th is International Women’s Day. Recognising the campaign for #EmbraceEquity, we are proud to offer new writing from Maria Farrell.
Burning Men was performed as a fictional lecture at the University of Western Australia (UWA), hosted by the Tech and Policy Lab of the UWA Law School, on 12 August, 2022.
Content Warning: This piece of speculative fiction deals with themes of sexual violence.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, just after a desultory Prime Minister’s Questions in which the leader of the opposition failed once again to achieve cut-through, the Prime Minister sagged into the backseat of his car, sighed at a red traffic light on Parliament Square, and spontaneously combusted. His driver fell out the door onto his hands and knees, hair smoking, and heaved up a bacon sandwich and two cups of sweet brown tea as protection officers from the vehicle behind seethed around the car, noses in the crooks of jackets, burning their fingers on door handles as they shouted over each other for backup. By the time the armed response unit arrived less than three minutes later, the fire extinguisher wrenched from a nearby pub had spurted its last, useless dribble of foam. Ten armed men stood around the car with their backs to it, trying not to breathe, to hide it from view. Westminster Whatsapp channels surged with speculation about ‘the incident’, but nothing could be confirmed. MPs elbowed each other to the windows, torn between sight and flight. The glory-seekers rushed out to gawk manfully from across the square. The more circumspect silently surmised that most terrorist incidents now have two acts, and trotted as fast as possible without being seen to run across Westminster Bridge. The occupants of each nearby car were taken in windowless vans for questioning under special powers elsewhere, underground. No phone calls, no exceptions. Within an hour, a white tent the size of a small wedding marquee was erected over the Prime Minister’s car. The habitual news crews of Parliament Square were held back by armed officers and warned by soft-spoken individuals in civilian clothing about the professional and personal risks to them of any broadcasts construed as jeopardising public security. A brownish yellow haze hovered at traffic light level and the smell of sulphur got into everyone’s clothes. It wouldn’t wash out, lingering through many hot cycles. It couldn’t be got off their skin for days and days, though they sat for hours in the bath, sometimes crying inexplicably, mostly numb and dissociated, but from what they couldn’t say. Just scrubbing and scrubbing their raw, faithless skin till it limned the bath greyly and swirled away.
That was the first one.
Unconfirmed reports flashed across Twitter of a raging fire in Mar-a-Lago that seemed inexplicably to have started in a bathroom; of the president’s helicopter crashing just after take-off from Brasilia; and a series of incendiary devices inside heavily guarded compounds in Colombia, Mexico and El Salvador and a sumptuous villa in Arcore, near Milan. Anchors on commercial news channels swivelled gravely to camera to announce a spate of terrorist attacks on the hearts of government worldwide. They did not yet name the victims. Chinooks crisscrossed London’s Zone 1, landing on Vauxhall Park, James’ Park and the lawn of Buckingham Palace where a garden party had just been evacuated. Pink and purple hats were blasted into flowerbeds by twin-rotors as the helicopter squashed a single, high-heeled shoe into the grass and disgorged a dozen special forces soldiers in gas masks who spread out through the Crown estate, the Parliamentary estate and all the way to Lambeth Palace, moving swiftly and silently as they signalled pointless tactical set-pieces to each other by hand. Snipers ran up flights of stairs to building tops from Trafalgar Square to Millbank, scanned the empty streets, set their weapons and sat down to watch and wait.
We all sat down to watch and wait.
For a week, the only developments were the naming of the dead and speculation about who had killed them. All we knew was that thirty-six heads of government had been killed at the same moment by the same untraceable incendiary device. With just ash and brittle, calcified fragments of bone left to examine, the presence of the device could only be inferred. Over eight hundred assorted warlords, directors of ‘re-education camps’, consiglieres of trafficking cartels and organised crime bosses also perished. They’d ignited without warning and burned at temperatures of twelve hundred degrees Celsius. Nothing about it was scientifically normal. At that temperature it should have taken three hours, not three minutes, to reduce hair, skin, muscle, organs and bones to less than two kilos of mostly dust. The combustions were unnaturally contained. They might consume others who’d shared the same lift, vehicle or bed, but otherwise did not spread. An expert in a viral clip said it was as if lightning had become sentient and could micro-target individuals, striking far inside buildings. Another, whose sad and puzzled shake of her head somehow spoke for us all, said the phenomenon was simply ‘non-Newtonian’ and that nothing useful might yet be said.
What united the victims? Certainly, many were profoundly evil men who had wrought every form of violence imaginable and climbed to power over mountains of broken bodies. But this was not uniform. Amongst the elected, there was a marked tendency toward the strongman ideologies of the hard right, but also some outliers. And few of the statesmen were themselves murderers, as far as we knew. If they’d sent men to kill and die, it was under the legitimate auspices of the state. The burning men had countless enemies, but who could have done for them all, and why?
The British establishment snapped its autonomous cells into visible connection to publicly exert itself across all available channels in its most uxorious drawl. All who held or merely coveted power sensed a threat to the very notion of order, and fell in line. Both parties united to entomb the deceased Prime Minister in a bubble of blamelessness. Any link to the villains who’d died that day was angrily repudiated. An act of appalling terrorism had been committed, that was all. When we asked what the terrorists’ political goal was, there was outraged silence. The eventual government line was dredged up from Coleridge, a half-remembered phrase that passes for learning among our rulers: the attack (on ‘us all’) had been ‘a motiveless malignity’. No more, no less. This characterisation was not as reassuring as intended.
We were soon to understand that any act against the state, in thought, word, or deed, is Terrorism. (The word began spontaneously to be capitalised.) Detailed news reports from abroad were openly suppressed by the tech platforms who showed a practiced eagerness and ability to anticipate government’s desires reminiscent of middle-aged lovers who know just where and how to press. In the last few end-to-end encrypted channels, we shared footage of people dancing in countries whose tyrants had burned. We marvelled at the raucous bravery of those who surely knew better than we that when the dragon is beheaded a far worse monster looms over his smoking corpse.
As speculation raged and government scientists in Porton Down did twelve-hour shifts testing and re-testing the Prime Minister’s remains, world leaders fled to Faraday-caged bunkers with workmen still nail-gunning fire-retardant panels to the wall. They flew to islands with only their most trusted advisors. They spent days in flotation tanks, nights in panic-rooms, wore synthetic foils from head to toe and scratched incessantly. Unused to such intimate constraints, many soon abandoned these practices and declared themselves un-cowed. Some leaders, however, had plumbed a deeper well of courage and consistently gone about their work and their lives not quite like before, but close. They revised civil contingency plans, shored up supply chains and, for the first time ever, published detailed succession plans, no longer afraid the mere admission of mortality would weaken them. The most important thing, these leaders stressed, was not that one person survive, but that the state should. Their countries seemed calmer than ours, their people more stoic, more fraternal.
The second wave struck at four minutes past two on the morning of October sixteenth—a month to the day after the first wave. Just as we settled into the idea that it had been a single, catastrophic event which might never be explained, but whose effects might ultimately be judged as much good as bad, the combustions began anew. Whole wings of packed tight prisons simultaneously immolated. Certain affluent English suburbs were roused from care-free sleep as the entire management layer of global people-trafficking, and the wives who’d looked the other way, went up in smoke. Individual puffs of sulphuric yellow vapour were emitted by police stations, messes, boarding schools, seminaries, care homes, and various facilities for the care of foster-children, young offenders and vulnerable adults. In countless places where less powerful people were sequestered, a small but surprisingly consistent number of their superiors and carers burned. The emergency services of the entire country were overwhelmed in under eight minutes. At the few call-outs they reached there was nothing to be done. What had burned had burned and, apart from the prisons, the blazes were self-contained. One exception was a landmark building in Knightsbridge where apartments sold for tens of millions of pounds through offshore shell companies, and which was gutted by an unusual concentration of burning men. The victims, said locally to be minor princes from several Gulf states, were not identified for weeks, as the property’s beneficial owners could not easily be determined and no families came forward to claim kinship.
Nowhere was untouched. As the seventeenth of October sluggishly dawned, cities and towns across the land squatted distrustfully under a bilious pall that variously suggested under-seasoned pulled pork, the mass livestock bonfires of the Foot and Mouth crisis, a rained-out barbecue.
A national state of emergency was declared just before 3 a.m. The Human Rights Act was suspended, much to the satisfaction of Cabinet. By then they’d stopped meeting in person, ostensibly to maintain continuity of government, but actually as several ministers had begun to emit a distinctive sulphuric whiff which only subordinates would endure. De facto martial law obtained throughout the country, its rude impositions a shock to all except those in Northern Ireland old enough to remember. All armed forces reserves were called up to enforce it, and when they proved insufficient, all who had previously served and were still under fifty-five. The ‘Green and Tans’, as the cobbled-together force came to be known, dug around in garages and attics for old uniforms and turned out in an unbecoming mix of forest green, desert and multi-terrain pattern camo, topped with extinct cap badges and gathered uncomfortably at the middle by belts with new holes punched in.
Internment quickly followed. With no evidentiary leads and little apparent motive to narrow the suspects, we were all presumed culpable. People who’d posted memes applauding the deaths of tyrants in September now backtracked publicly. Too late. Their ‘online harms’ had been noted, their names added to prosecutors’ lists pre-populated by tech platforms using capabilities they’d long denied. Magistrates dealt in batch lots, custodial sentences for all. Everyone was a suspect, especially the already-suspect. The BBC amplified backbenchers’ wild accusations against minorities, ‘for balance’. Front pages screamed for scapegoats. Police beatings were administered brazenly in the public square. There was no such thing as a ‘good Muslim’ in those weeks, or anyone brown-skinned or queer, or nationalists in any flavour other than English. No ‘loyal opposition’ either, which was just as well, as the Leader of the Opposition had begun to trail the distinctive and strangely satisfying phosphoric pop of a just-lit match.
When the world’s exhausted scientists gave a collective shrug, global speculation took a metaphysical turn. Were the burning men an irruption of our long-abused natural world, a planetary-level ‘return of the repressed’, a self-administered evolutionary slap in the face of a species too foul to behold itself? We ignored most of this. These hand-wringing theories abounded in foreign countries we habitually mocked for their traditions of public intellectualism and coalition government. Our revolution-fearing elite now worked assiduously to deflect attention from itself. It pressed first on our most tender buttons of national superiority, then pummelled the gentlest hint of introspection into a frenzied oblivion of othering and blame. Its reliable contrarians were quickly jettisoned. Legions of squawking columnists and talk radio flying monkeys discovered at last the limits of privilege, and learnt in the internment camps what cancellation truly is. Their eager replacements spoke as one; the burnings would be avenged by the edifying brutality of our world-beating law and order. To suggest otherwise was to disgrace the memory of our former Prime Minister and thousands of respectable British men.
Who had burned in the second wave? Police officers, head teachers, religious leaders and their rank and file, sports coaches, founders of boys’ clubs and academy chains, managers of privatised foster homes; the victims dripped with OBEs. Their obituaries read as model lives of quiet inspiration. The presence among them of several hundred convicted prisoners gave rise to lofty speeches contrasting ‘the best and worst of us’. Some unsavoury women had also burned. Official and public mourning—now one and the same—routed silently around these anomalies.
In countries whose premier had not been incinerated, the consensus need not hold so fast to the piety of the burned. But here, where our ruling party’s most unassailable leader had perished in the first wave, the man who embodied the very qualities and emitted the steady flow of punchlines that made our country first and breezily best, the presumption of innocence was violently inverted. We were the guilty ones, all of us. We would be squeezed until the pips squeak, flogged until morale improved, and there would be the answer. Not for the first time, our country chose in full public view to tear itself apart rather than admit it had fallen for an insultingly stupid lie.
As November began, first dozens and then hundreds contested the piety of our virtuous burned. They had not been good men, it was said. They had been serially, systemically, categorically bad. At first timidly, but growing in number and volume, people across the country detailed the logarithmically potent combination of vile individual acts and embedded institutional power of those taken in the conflagration of respectable men. The great and the good lashed back. The victims’ claims were disputed, their affect critiqued, their credibility trashed. They were found hysterical, manipulative, unhinged. Who among us can judge, we were asked in reasonable, compassionate tones, what is right and wrong in the thick-weeded intimacy of family life? In the cultural traditions and mission-critical coercion of the army, police forces, religious and educational establishments? And why did these so-called victims only speak out now, when the accused could not defend themselves? A bill was quickly drafted to criminalise vexatious claims about the dead, but made little progress as the chair of the relevant parliamentary committee had also burned.
The adult children of snuffed out men fought bitterly at small, family-only memorials, on the sofas of afternoon television programmes and, in one infamous exchange, via excoriating first-person essays on the facing pages of a Sunday broadsheet. Some cherished unsullied memories of their fathers. Others were scalded by the mere mention of his name. This latter group experienced scant relief at the wave of death. The ambiguity and complicity of he said/she-he-they said had simply moved from the familial to the national where, as always, it is a far greater sin to besmirch the name of a man than the body of a child.
We now know from leaked minutes that the Joint Intelligence Committee considered but ultimately dismissed the correct explanation of the burnings. Within days of the second wave, a senior MoD official ordered a detailed analysis of each victim’s life, a nontrivial exercise as they numbered over eighteen thousand. A retired army officer, she’d worked on war crime investigations in Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Operating in a grey area that risked her career at the very least, and quite possibly her liberty, she led brave souls across Whitehall, local government and the security services to test all available information against a devastatingly simple rubric. Setting aside for obvious political reasons the startling number of convicted criminals who’d burned, she found that ninety-eight percent were men. This much was obvious. But then, after a methodologically and ethically unsound trawl through sealed education records, social media likes, archived messaging group ‘banter’, spent convictions, family law proceedings, criminal cautions, unexplained sick leave, mandatory trainings, ‘me too’ back channels and shared drives, abrupt lateral career moves and inconclusive disciplinary proceedings, she found that at least eighty-three percent of the burned had materially and repeatedly harmed the bodies, minds and life-chances of women, nonbinary people and girls. Not just once or twice, but systematically, and over a median period of nine and a half years. Of these, almost seventy per cent had committed violent but largely unpunished acts against intimate partners. Six per cent of the burned had occupied positions that put boys and young men in their charge. Here, the breadcrumbs were harder to follow but still indicative of long and studied careers of violent, sexual abuse. There were almost no psychopaths. Few had harmed animals. They were British, after all.
These numbers do not surprise us, but seemed unbearably shocking to senior civil servants on the JIC, and certainly to its chairman. However, the determining factor in the report’s rejection was not its unpalatability, but that its findings had no useful application. It was one thing to comb every possible evidentiary trace left by eighteen thousand identified and very dead men to find dozens of arrows pointing at one deed in common, quite another to do so ex ante for the entire male population. The burned had appeared ‘bracingly normal’, their repeated acts of violence and abuse largely unprosecuted, so their only notable shared characteristic was better than average career success. The age-old problem with ‘not all men’, albeit urgently novel to the intelligence committee, was that perpetrators were largely indistinguishable from ‘all men’. Their true natures could only be discerned post facto. These findings were noted but not sent to the new Prime Minister. Implicit but unrecorded in the minutes was that the country’s intelligence experts fully expected another wave. In this they were also correct.
Now we must speak of the worst moments, weeks and months we have lived.
Before the burning men, when we lived under the previous order, none of us was unharmed nor any family unwounded by the deed that no longer exists. It seemed inevitable and even correct that its victims should weep alone or in small groups, tend discreetly to the fallen, and carry our injuries deep inside as we withdrew or were expelled from the centre course of life. We were the dog that didn’t bark, the unwanted evidence of a crime too ubiquitous to be considered a mystery. That act was a crime in name only, with fewer than two in a hundred ever charged, let alone convicted, let alone imprisoned. Impunity was simply the natural order. Our lives and works and joys were the acceptable cost, the collateral damage of a war begun thousands of years ago. Men had meanwhile learnt to fly, paint pictures more real than life itself, defeat disease, double our life span and split the very atoms we’re made of, but they could not learn to take only what they were given. They would not learn it. For this, our daughters’ countless possibilities were spilled onto dry dust. So many boys’ ease and love of themselves and the world was crushed. Those who are not just one gender but contain swirling multitudes, they suffered the most. So many—powerful, cis women the worst of them—policed the hard boundaries that squeezed sex, gender and all innate, invented and delightfully divergent human variety into accounting categories to more easily sort, sell, spend and discard us. Our children were deemed expendable, a ‘snow white’ resource passed between rich, foul men. Princes plundered our children’s bodies. We could not be safe, as that would make men less free. We could not be believed, because their word was law. That was the old order.
Then men began to burn for that deed. They lost their very lives and we lost so many we loved. People around the world beat their heads and rent their garments for an older brother, a husband, the father of their children, thoughtful colleague, old classmate or first boyfriend, the café owner who remembered their name.
I don’t want to say these words.
Words don’t even approach.
They’re all we have.
I’m sitting in that rented room, beside you on that rented couch. It’s the morning after. You’re an automaton, responding to only the narrowest of queries. Another cup of tea? A blanket? Outside it is summer. I put my hand on you and you shudder. I take it away and just sit. You are in there, still. I know it. You have to be. It’s Sunday, whatever that means anymore.
I begin to write the words I speak today. On the phone you give me permission and you ask:
Did I ruin or absolutely napalm someone’s life because I wasn’t clear enough?
My beloved, you did not.
If I’d screamed and punched instead of saying please, leave me, I just want to go home, would he still be alive?
My love, he would not. He died for what he did, not what you said. And there were others.
The tip of the pyramid has just a few bricks. In our former world, an invisible hierarchy determined who suffered. So it was when justice came. Those who had both committed the act and through their orders or repeated, knowing failure caused it to be committed at scale were the first to burn. The next were systematic perpetrators. There were many more of these. They’d burrowed their way into structures that gave them power over others. Our institutions are pitted with the charred gaps they left. Their pattern had been uniform, differing only in the startling variety of situations they’d flourished in. Predation at scale was not simply a reward in the clumsy largesse of a distracted state. It was, in fact, the point of it. It was the honey in the honeycomb of power.
The pyramid widens as it goes down. The third wave, which began in February the following year, was for the merely prolific. Modelling agency directors, influencers, barfly bulk-buyers of Rohypnol, a twinkly-eyed ex-President who made you feel like the only woman alive, veterans of forgotten wars, footballers, film producers, a bunch of famous and semi-famous actors and musicians, almost eight dozen British parliamentarians, peers and political fixers, and what was to many a startling number of billionaires. People with everyday status and access, too; the big man on campus, the Uber driver, the rugby players who passed that poor girl around.
They went, not all at once, but over the course of a month, like the slightly attenuating waves of a virus. This randomness scared people more than the conflagrations. The aloneness. The gathering inevitability. How it could happen to anyone, any time. The drip of names on social media like melted wax rolling down the candle. The shocked (not-shocked) of ‘…Him?’ The growing and unmournable shame of surviving family members. The burned had been sleeper cells, living among us. So were those they’d harmed; though these were not invisible, just wilfully unseen.
People stopped getting into a lift if a man was already in it. (For some, this had long been their practice.) Men stopped sharing enclosed spaces with certain others they knew. They’d always known at some level, and expressed it through jokes, but now it counted because it could hurt them. There were no more post-mortems. The system was overwhelmed. The charred remains were interred in collective graves, records kept only in digital form.
In other countries, the emerging logic of the burnings was openly discussed. Here, we knew but didn’t know. It could be stated publicly, but not by serious people. We ‘needed more data’. The death toll was reported daily, until that stopped, though the burnings went on. Few inferences were made about why. To do so would be to politicise it, and we didn’t do that. With each new Prime Minister—we had three more before Easter: one burned, one resigned with stress, the third simply walked out of Downing Street one morning and never came back—we were encouraged to draw a line and focus on the future. That was hard. The future had less in it than before. The new PM was ‘a forthright, vigorous chap’, catnip to the party faithful. As an MP, it was rumoured he’d kept a log of his female assistants’ toilet breaks, convinced they took longer and that wasn’t fair. He still kept the notebooks somewhere. Rumours flew fast and far that his fingertips were blackened and burnt and he smelt faintly of kebab, but the government was well into its fifth or sixth rank by then. Supermarkets, schools and transport only sporadically worked, but we must all keep calm and carry on. Hallowed institutions would groan and suddenly collapse, or calve like icebergs. The country was being hollowed out, but no one could say too clearly why.
The base of the pyramid is lined with the bodies of men we knew and loved well, the ones we mourn still. The once or twice men. The never heard her say no. The terrible teenage mistake. Their grey areas were the foundation stones of the pyramid of pain.
So many went about with a stone of dread in their hearts.
Turned out: They did remember.
Turned out: They knew exactly what it was.
They ruminated and lashed out viciously at those they’d harmed yet held to blame, but some were courageous, too. They left their families, abandoned their lives and turned to meet their doom. They withdrew to tarpaulined fraternities in industrial parks and national parks, joked bravely about getting too close to the makeshift fires they huddled around. It was an unusually cold March.
So many of us went about weeping freely and, to be frank, unwantedly. We’d thought we were done with it, all cried out, but our bodies had held it and now let it flow, whenever, wherever. Women who’d sharply told others to get over it, move on, it’s just part of life, found themselves poleaxed by pain they’d denied for decades.
Turned out: It was real.
Turned out: It wasn’t just her, him, them.
Tens, then hundreds of thousands burned. Then came the sick dread and grim satisfaction at the death of our millionth man. Surely now it must stop.
It went on.
You see me standing before you, my hands out, their scarred and clawed palms face-up, beseeching with my body not to have to do this. I keep circling around our pain, our loss. Their loss. The loss of their lives, those we surely cannot go on without. But to move forward we must go through. Come closer. Move with me. We will walk through the valley of the shadow of death once more.
Our boys. Our questing, testing boys. Will I say the names? There are too many names. But I cannot say the numbers because numbers bury names and hide their precious faces, the faces of the boys who looked eagerly to us for guidance, to reveal to them the truth beneath the ugliness we took for order, and who we turned away. We failed them. We were embarrassed and confused. We didn’t find the words, words like consent, pleasure, respect. We expected them to muddle through, trusted we’d never hear if they didn’t. For that, they burned.
That spring burned through our boys, extinguishing youth and promise through the course of each cruelly lengthening day.
We can’t go on.
Their deaths took place in Tube carriages while it still ran, in sixth form colleges, university residences, chicken shops, shared bedrooms, while taking the driving test, reading set texts, gaming, lining up for a shot at goal; while smoking weed and looking out a grey-flecked window onto a rubbish-strewn carpark, wondering when his life would finally begin; on the way back from a party, mind awash in uppers, dance endorphins and a faint sense of looming emptiness, barely an hour after the deed.
Another Prime Minister burned. That made three.
The mothers of the burned filled Trafalgar Square with their ‘camp for life’. They made Whitehall impassable and occupied the House of Commons, which had in any case ceased to meet. Finally, the dam broke.
Overnight, government policy flipped from punishment to prevention. The day it could no longer be denied that men now suffered the consequence of their act, they found the will, invention and sheer financial and institutional clout to make it stop. When our poor, mind-poisoned boys were extinguished one by one, often in front of us, we managed to all but end it. We could not put out their flames with our hands. God knows we tried. We could only work to save the rest.
Suddenly, education was everywhere. ‘STOP. THINK. You won’t just wreck her life; you’ll burn your own.’ Intensive counselling, family interventions, acute residential care on the public purse—all was now possible. The poor choices of the boys and men who’d burned were minutely analysed in workshops akin to Maoist ‘violent struggles’. Their blurry decision trees were worked back to the first moment they could have just not. Their behaviour was monitored and policed, from how they spoke to where they went, to the minute impressions they trailed behind as they went about their day. Mandatory sentiment analysis of all digital communications drew a straight line from joking about it to actually doing it. Was that right? Who knew? Evidence was for later. ‘Poor choices bring bad outcomes.’ They drummed it in a dozen times a day. There was an 8pm curfew by the first of May.
Some chuckled at the symmetry. The shoe was on the other foot, and it pinched. Too small and pointy and it stops you from running fast or feeling free.
As we mourned, we raged. We suffered, but no one imposed a crisis curriculum to save us, or thought to lock away the perpetrators, not the victims. No one listened when we said symbolic incarceration of a tiny few only punished the least powerful men. They burned us for centuries; on pyres, at funerals, with cigarettes when we talked back and acid running down our ruined faces when we dared say no. Who helped us?
Yet when boys and men became incandescent with the fury of that endless single deed, it was a global emergency, a species-level extinction crisis. All of society, the economy and the great ship of state must turn on a pin like an elderly elephant who, it turns out, could stunt-ride a unicycle all along, but no one ever asked him to. Not in the way he liked to be asked, anyway. Not in the right tone.
It was truly remarkable what we could collectively do to save men from themselves. We loved our boys and we mourn them. If only we could have loved and protected all our children the same.
So yes, of course we did our best. We split open our hearts and best practice manuals and blue-sky strategies to teach them to not want to wreck us, and we did it with alacrity and grace because we loved them, all of them, and we wanted them to live. The young taught us all how to navigate, to talk through our feelings and express ourselves clearly, in word and deed, so everyone knows what’s happening and no one ends up burnt. Turns out it wasn’t as hard as we’d thought. Or embarrassing. It didn’t kill the mood. It’s amazing what you can say when you know the other person is really listening.
People still burned, mostly though not entirely men. The reckonings might come minutes or decades after the act. And many, many people stank. By autumn, a growing number had begun to visibly smoulder, on the point of but never quite bursting into flame. Here, too, there was a hierarchy. Some just smelt of soggy embers or spent fireworks. Mothers who’d said in playgrounds and at lunch parties, ‘What will I do if he’s accused? All it takes is one drunk girl to ruin his life’, kept looking behind them, convinced someone had struck metal to flint.
The female enablers of tech platform violence no longer wafted fragrantly through the world of the one percent. They smoked incessantly, causing the powerful men who’d rewarded them for being ‘not like other women’ to shrink from them and eject them from each privilege their preening obeisance had bought.
Men who had silently sent threats of violation through those platforms now found their fingers yellowed and smoking, the tips hardened into clubbed callouses that advertised their violent cowardice to the world. They lost sensitivity and dexterity, affecting many activities both practical and pleasurable.
A young female barrister who’d edited CCTV footage so it looked like her client had been invited to follow his victim off the bus; who’d not been censured for this by the judge but instead offered clucking forgiveness; who described herself as a feminist and had even been to a vigil, once; began to emit a sulphurous whiff that repelled the judges, barristers and clerks whose paternal attentions she had sweetly solicited. Their looks of disgust and dismissal were of course familiar, but had never been pointed at her.
Everywhere, people trailed embers and tasted ashtray. Talk radio hosts, the principals of fee-paying girls’ schools and the parishioners who’d ostracised those boys’ families; they all reeked. The priests who gave character references at sentencing hearings, the judges lapping up every word, the sports club members who said ‘she’d asked for it’, the university administrators who watched that girl carry her bed around; none could wash away the acrid tang of burning hair and nails.
Will it fade in time? I believe the smokers will always be with us. Now shame has finally found its rightful bearers, they must carry it to the grave.
Other countries suffered more. In three months, Botswana lost a third of its adult men, setting a famine in train. Everywhere the act was used to punish women, its enforcers burned. Entire Papua New Guinean towns are now peopled by women and children, as community-sanctioned violation extinguished most men and all elders. Everywhere it was done to bond men into brotherhoods or gangs, those men burned together, yet utterly alone. The Italian mafia was gone by Christmas. Juarez burned to the ground, its last few buildings gasolined by survivors. Damascus was made pocked and rotten by phosphor, like the cities it had ruined. The girls and women of northern Nigeria began the long walk home, carrying babies and children forced on them by those now dead. Dozens of low-grade conflicts were abandoned, their entire ragtag chains of command eliminated in successive fiery bursts. Many warriors avoided their agonising extinction with a bullet to the brain. Artillery lined up behind makeshift battlements in Grozny, Donetsk, Nagorno-Karabakh, long reduced to ritualistic shelling of abandoned suburbs, fell into a puzzled doze from which it will never wake. Yet we live in no pacifist’s dream. The collapse of armies makes nuclear escalation the first step, not the last.
Formal and informal order collapsed in prisons from the ‘Bangkok Hilton’ to Guantanamo, Tadmor in Palmyra to San Quentin in California, La Santé in France, Black Dolphin in Russia and Tora in Egypt. And by ‘order’, I mean the daily violence used by officers and prisoners to humiliate and break those in their power. The hot killing fields and cold killing houses of the Congo, Kashmir Valley, Hamgyong and Xinjiang fell silent. Legislatures, police forces, intelligence agencies and, oh yes, Supreme Courts were decimated. The ‘maternity ranches’ of Texas cleared out overnight.
The deed was the one thing that united all these, the original violence that precedes all others in an enduring lattice of hate that formed the weight-bearing structure of our political order. What some saw as ‘just’ a tool of torture was the organising principle. We’d long thought the frequent sex scandals of those in public office were anomalies, but the truth was in plain sight. These scandals were not impelled by the same drives that, when properly directed, brought leaders power. Rather, men sought power to more conveniently slake their thirst. Power for lust, not lust for power. A licence for predation was the point of winning. That’s why so many leaders burned, why empires are collapsing.
Yet places where it was endemic before continue to suffer. Men flare like birthday sparklers, day and night. Some just can’t seem to stop. They can resist the deed and its likely result no more than see a single naked flame and not pass their finger through. Others no more believe it will happen to them than any of us truly believes in her own death. The rage that always fuelled it is doubled and redoubled, turned inward. The victims beg them to stop, so as not to bear guilt for the burned on top of their own injury, but the perpetrators quell their own hearts’ desperate cries for mercy, for life, and in each disastrous thrust quest after something nameless, eternal. Perhaps they find it on the other side. Now that the deed and its consequence are in balance, its power over those few is irresistible. The damned wipe themselves off and walk away, or sit down to wait. They, like we, seek justice. All who hunger for it are satisfied.
Now we walk as men. We move through the world fearing only brute violence, the common assaults of temper or theft, and not the pervasive drive to annihilate us and throw our bodies away. Now we know why for centuries we were scolded for letting our legs splay naturally, daring to take the stance of a man. It was not to protect our basic parts, clamming them up between our thighs, nor that we should mince prettily in poses and footwear that made it hard to run in a world that could at any moment require it. No, the perpetual policing of how we arrange our bodies meant we didn’t know how it feels to move freely, fearlessly, and without pre-emptive shame for what might be done on account of our wide-bowled, provocative, pelvic sashay. We no longer just perceptibly bow our heads to let men in front, or move always to the side on the footpath. We’re not ordered to smile by strange men in public places, because the implicit threat they relied on, yet denied as mere banter, is empty—and anyway, we need no longer broadcast courteous acquiescence to all in a silent plea to simply be let go by. We seldom cross our legs at the knees. Comfort is no comfort to the free. Now we move as men, stand as men, sit as men. Now, at last, to be a man is the default. We stand with our feet one foot apart. We sit with our knees comfortably pointing a V to the place now wholly, finally our own.
And you, my love, how you’ve increased in measure; in breadth and depth and girth. Your soft, full flesh put space between you and them, inch by fruitful inch. Your body’s wisdom multiplied, copying ancient epigenetic knowledge into each new cell. How could I not love the more you have become? You step firmer now. Each new pound insists on your consequence in a world that long claimed you had little. A substantial woman, a woman of substance, you absolute marvel. You miracle. You blessing.
Each day you step out, you have won. You find it inside to hold the children in your classroom in heart and mind, to make art, to touch and be touched by the cold, cold sea, to hold fast to what you now know, despoiling nothing, to teach scared and angry little boys that their feelings have names and how to call them and when to let them go. You do it not for us, and certainly not for you, but so each tender soul has a chance to grow up whole.
We cannot go back to before. A choice was made for us. A moment split us in two. Who we once were is irretrievably gone. Nothing feels real. Each moment is hyper-charged and estranged from itself. The necklace is yanked and split, beads scattered across the floor. Surely we can fix this? I feel I could pinch the air into a curtain and pull it back to reveal what was solid before, to step back into that scene. I know you feel that, too.
We cannot. What’s done is done. After is where we’ve always started from.
The fact of it determined everything; not just how we acted and felt, but how they ruled. Its policing and punishment simply tended to the operationally optimal level. The unequal division of consequence was the both the model and maintenance of power. We who saw that were in a minority. Now everyone sees. The scales have fallen from all your eyes.
Knowing what we now know, having lost what was violently taken, how can we possibly go on? My friends, I don’t know the answer. But now we’re all asking the same question.
The wheel’s spokes meet at its hub. Where the wheel is not is where it does its work. Same with a bowl. It’s not the clay but the space it surrounds that we fill with good things to eat. In the holes made in our ruined institutions by conflagrations of powerful and respectable men there is now space to fill with good ideas and things to do.
The air rushing into those voids smells sweet. Tonight, you’ll walk home untroubled by the fear that constrained you before. You won’t message when you get in or worry for friends and family who forget. Every movement of every day is no longer circumscribed by that threat and the gleeful punishment awaiting all who flouted its rules. We no longer live to earn power’s protection. What won’t we achieve now we’re not always fighting or fearing it?
We’re just as venal and broken as before, but some weight of oppression is falling away. All sexualities and genders break loose to party, parade, dance, and just lie in the grass thinking of nothing in particular, no longer categorised by what they are not or fearful of what will be done on account of it. The women who policed those boundaries and tried to shut our sisters out of the few safe spaces available to us have sat down to weep, at last, in sorrow and bitter, bitter shame.
Black and brown men and boys walk taller, lighter. Powerful white men can no longer project onto them their own twisted fantasies. Racism is far, far from ending, but its toehold in the hearts of vengeful, self-hating white men, and the women who sought their protection, has been loosened.
Murder persists. The instinct to annihilate what they cannot possess is still in them, but it’s weaker than the drive to discard what they’ve used.
We need to mark what has finished. Before, we cried only to endure the world it made. Its apparent absence was the silence of perpetual threat. Where it was not was where its work was done. Now we weep as we bury it for good. It could have been stopped at any time. We just collectively chose not to. We need new rituals. We need to join hands.
Some ask: how they can love us or even be with us, now the consequence for tyrants and teenagers is the same? We did it for millennia, even as they mistook our fear for respect. We will share with them how to find and grow to near-infinity the tiny pocket of love we always held in heart for those we rightly feared.
In the future, we will feel differently. Our range of action is widening. We already own each of the twenty-four hours. We will build differently, with different people. We will dance again.
Those who come next will never know what it is to breathe in the threat like it’s oxygen, not even tasting the pollution. They’ll be different. They may leave us far behind, their sympathy tinged with incomprehension. God, I hope so! We have little to teach them and much to learn. My friends, I cannot wait to learn. I want to live in their world and breathe their sweet, sweet air. I will gladly make way for them. But first, stand up. Let us sing.
Maria Farrell is an Irish writer and speaker on technology, politics and the future. She has written for the Guardian, Slate, Conversationalist, OneZero, Irish Times and New European. Maria has addressed the European Parliament, Royal Society, Royal Institute, Chatham House, Alpbach Festival and NATO Cyber War Summer School, and appeared on the BBC, NBC, Sky News, RTE and TRT. Maria completed an MSc in Creative Writing at Edinburgh University in 2012 and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, London, as well as a Fellow at Large of the UWA Tech & Policy Lab. She has been shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize, published by Lunate, and is working on a novel about alternate lives. You can find her online, via her website, Twitter (@mariafarrell) and Mastodon (@firstname.lastname@example.org).
Image credit: MarcusObal, Creative Commons (BY-SA 3.0)