𝗕𝗮𝗻𝗻𝗲𝗿𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗙𝗹𝗮𝗴𝘀
𝘣𝘺 𝘔𝘢𝘳𝘬 𝘗𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘤𝘦
Larry Douglas walked alone through the cold, dead world. His face betold weeks of hunger and fatigue. All around him was a barren wasteland; no plant life dotted the horizon, no noise disturbed the silence.
Larry squinted his eyes at the rise of ground ahead of him. It was the metallic door to an underground bomb shelter. Larry stumbled over to it, dropped to his knees, and tried the bolt. It did not budge. He pressed harder, then stopped.
“Hello in there!” he cried. “Can anybody hear me?”
He picked up a rock and beat it against the surface of the metal.
“I say! Can anybody hear me?”
“They can hear you, all right,” a voice spoke from behind.
Larry turned, startled. The man who stood before him resembled a leper: his skin was horribly ravaged, his clothes were in tatters, his scalp covered with open sores. Yet in spite of his diseased appearance, he was surprisingly strong and agile. He carried a cloth bag over his shoulder and was holding a long staff which served as his walking stick.
“They can hear you,” he said, “but they won’t answer. They never answer.”
“Who are you?”
“Alfred. Alfred Cavanaugh. Who are you?”
“Pleased to meet you, Larry.”
Alfred held out a twisted hand in greeting. Larry hesitated.
“Ahhh,” Alfred said. “Still squeamish, I see. That’s all right. You’ll get over that soon enough.”
He sat cross-legged on the ground and dug through his pack. “So tell me, Larry, where are you from?”
“No, I mean lately. Since the bomb.”
“Oh.” Larry paused. “I’ve been in a shelter some miles from here. We were close to running out of food, and things began to get nasty. Someone was killed. I left to find a new shelter.”
“That’s too bad,” Alfred said. His bag rattled as he continued to search its depths. “The shelters never open up until they run out of food,” he said. “That’s the only time I ever get any company.”
“What are you doing above ground?” Larry asked.
Alfred pointed to the iron door.
“That’s my shelter there,” he said. “My neighbors and I chipped in to build it a long time ago. When the warning came, I didn’t get here in time. They had already sealed themselves in. I beat on the door, but they wouldn’t open it.”
Alfred found what he was looking for. “Here it is,” he said. He pulled a chunk of bread from his bag and tore it in half. “Care to join me?”
Larry was dubious. “If you haven’t been in a shelter, where did you get that?”
“I found it among the rubble of a grocery store.”
“Doesn’t it have radiation poisoning?”
Larry was disgusted. “No, thank you.”
Alfred smiled. “I forgot you’re still squeamish.” He began contentedly to eat. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes. After I found the shelter was locked, I went to hide in a cave I know of, not far from here. It protected me from most of the fallout. That’s where I live now. But I come visit the shelter every day.”
He popped the last morsel into his mouth.
“Now tell me about yourself. I haven’t had anyone to talk to in weeks. It really gets lonely up here, waiting for an occasional person to emerge.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Why not tell me about the people in your shelter? Were they your neighbors?”
“No. It was a government shelter. I was doing work for the military.”
Alfred, impressed, made a gesture which encompassed the world around them. “Then all of this is your doing.”
“Now, just a minute...”
“Oh, don’t get angry. The military did what they had to do. But you said things got nasty in your shelter?”
“Yes. Rations were short and everyone was on edge. Someone was accused of stealing food, and they killed him.”
Alfred’s eyebrows wrinkled into a frown. “They shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “They went about it all wrong. There are rules for that sort of thing. You’ve got to follow the rules. If you don’t, you’ve got chaos and anarchy, and that translated into Sin.”
“What are you talking about?”
"Sin. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it, and I’ve got it all figured out. Look here, suppose a man sees another man on the street and kills him. That’s a sin, right?”
“I’d say so.”
“And it’s a crime, right?”
“But suppose he sees that same man on the other side in a war. Then he’s expected to kill him. Now what’s the difference between the two cases? In both, he kills a man he doesn’t know, yet in one case he’s sinning, and in the other he’s not. Why?”
“In the case of the war, he has to kill him. He’s the enemy.”
“But I can’t just step up to one of my enemies on the street and kill him. So it’s not that he’s the enemy. Come on. What is it?”
“I don’t see what you’re driving at. Is it the fact that he’s on foreign soil?”
“That’s nonsense. Suppose there was a man I didn’t like. Could I just follow him onto foreign soil and kill him?”
“Of course not.”
“Then think. What’s the difference?”
Larry thought for a moment. “I know what it is. When a man kills someone in war, it’s not his decision to commit the act. He’s following the orders of his superiors.”
“Now you’re just being ridiculous,”Alfred said, exasperated. “The Mafia assassin is just following orders. Do you think he’s committing a moral act?”
Larry was tired of this game. “Why don’t you just tell me?” he said. “What is the difference between killing a man in the street and killing him in a war?”
Alfred smiled with annoying smugness. “Banners,” he said.
“And flags. That’s what the man in the war has that the man in the street hasn’t. Banners and flags. And songs, of course. You can’t have a truly satisfactory war without a good, rousing anthem.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The moral justification of war. It’s really very simple. I didn’t have much else to do while I sat around up here, so I spent most of my time thinking, and eventually it all became clear to me: flags are magic. They really are. Just think about it a minute. Would any sane young man leave his family and his girlfriend to go kill strangers in a foreign country if he weren’t under the influence of magic? Of course not. But where does this magic come from?
It must be from the banners and flags. You see, they represent civilization. That’s why I was concerned to hear that the people in your shelter were committing acts of murder with personal motives. That’s a threat to civilization itself. You must never kill out of anger or need. That’s a sin. We all know it’s a sin. Murder is a very naked crime. You have to clothe it in banners and flags, salutes and slogans. If we lose our patriotism, civilization will die. We will sink back to the savagery of the animals, who kill for hunger rather than for banners.”
Larry stood up. “You’re insane.”
“Why? Because I know the value of civilization?”
“I’m not going to argue with you,” Larry said. “I’ve wasted enough time here as it is.” He began to turn away.
“Wait. Where are you going?”
“To find some food. I haven’t eaten in nearly three days.”
“You don’t have to leave,” Alfred said. “I can get you all the food you want right here.”
Larry scowled. “No thanks. I’m not interested in radiation poisoning.”
“No. I mean good, clean food.”
Alfred motioned to the shelter. “We know they’ve got food down there,” he said. “All we have to do is convince them to come out and share it with us.”
“And how do we do that?”
“By plugging their air vents.”
Larry looked at the metal door. It shone dull in the midday sun. “That will make them come out, all right,” he said. “But how do we convince them to share their food?”
Alfred reached into his bag. He pulled out a small wooden club and a large hunting knife. He looked very menacing as he brandished the club in his right hand and the knife in his left. Larry looked at him, then down at the shelter, then back at him.
“Let’s do it,” he said, soberly.
Alfred nodded. Larry dropped to his knees and started filling the air vents with sand. Alfred shoved the knife into his belt, slipped the club under his arm, and reached back into his bag. He came out with a white piece of cloth, smeared with blood. He tied it to the end of his staff and planted the staff into the ground so that it resembled a makeshift flag. Larry looked up and saw Alfred standing at attention, saluting the banner.
“What are you doing?” Larry said.
In one swift motion, Alfred took the club from under his arm, whirled around, and struck Larry between the eyes. Larry collapsed into the dirt. Alfred then took the knife and began to sharpen it against a stone.
“Yes,” he said. “It gets really lonely up here, waiting for an occasional person to emerge. But I’ll never go hungry. Food is always provided for those who know the magic of the flag.”
He was very solemn as he stared at Larry and continued to sharpen the knife. The only noise in the cold, dead world was the sound of the blade scraping back and forth, back and forth, against the rough edge of the stone. ✦