As I sat down at a table with a group of friends in a spacious and noisy pizzeria, I just had time to notice that our presence displeased some people sitting nearby.
Three men and two women stared at us continuously. One of them, a tall, thin, dark fellow with angular nose and arms and a long neck, moved his chair a bit so that he could follow our conversation.
We were chatting about everything and nothing. The conversation flitted around our usual subjects in unexpected and imaginative ways.
The man with angular nose and arms made no effort to hide it when our flitting seemed entertaining to him; nor, on the contrary, when it annoyed him. Then – so to speak – his eyes darted darkness. The tip of his nose took the shape of a crow’s beak. His elbows appeared to have become aggressively pointed.
Who could he be? An instructor from some suburban campus? A union leader? A reporter from a small town paper or a big city daily? A somewhat intellectualized petty businessman? I don’t know.
At a certain moment he noticed that we were talking about the use of poison gas. He couldn’t contain himself. With the bristly despotism typical of certain so-called moderate leftists, and obviously hoping to stir up the crowd in the restaurant against us, he asked one of the youngest people at my table:
“Ah ha! That’s how far you go, huh! Are you in favor of using poison gas?”
The angular man wanted my young friend to confirm his suspicion. Then he would stand up on his table (or on ours…) and call everybody there to boo us because of our opinion.
This leftist, who certainly was a hotheaded partisan of the freedom of all opinions… that are leftist, did not inhibit me. But all of this had started a long and boring argument between one table and the other. The angular man had to be silenced if we were to freely continue flitting from thought to thought in our usual cogitations.
Shouting intruder at him would be playing into his hands. He would yell that our pride was
intolerable, etc. It would be even more monotonous and longer than an argument; it would be a fight…What could be done?
I took a bossy air and from the depth of the distance separating us I fixed him firmly with my gaze and replied:
“Indeed I am an advocate of the use of poison gasses, I think, for example, that when a small band of guerrillas takes refuge up in the mountains using them as a base to create problems for the regular army, it has a right to defend itself by spraying poison gasses over the rebels. Not all of them have to be deadly! There is due measure in everything. It is enough for some of these gasses to be lethal. The others can simply make the guerrillas sick. That will be enough to wipe out the guerrilla movement.”
This moderate leftist was all points: his nose, cars, chin, arms, and the corners of his mouth. Triumphantly, he cried out to me:
“You won’t refuse to give me this statement in writing, will you? A man of character doesn’t hesitate to write what he says.”
To stir him up even more, I pretended to lack character. I told him I would not write what I had said. I made a little pause that – I suppose – he used to calculate whether he could leap on the table in a single jump or if he would have to use some chair as a starting point. He shook with rage. Oh what a night of glory was in store for him in the pizzeria!
I went on in a soft and careless tone:
“Writing is a lot of work, and I feel lazy. But if you can find me a tape recorder (I saw one on a nearby table) I will record what I’ve just said.” In less than a minute the recorder was at my elbow.
I imposed only one condition for the fulfillment of the angular man’s request: That he would not interrupt me. He agreed.
My friends appeared amused at the move. His showed the curiosity of hyenas. Ah the ferocity of so many “moderates,” I already knew it well!
I recorded what I had said word for word, merely adding that my statement had only been a stratagem to turn away from our conversation an aggressive and importunate interlocutor. When we were interrupted by him, I explained, we were actually condemning the poison gas bombardments that, according to the papers, Laotian communists were carrying out against anti-communist guerrillas of the Hmong tribe. They were doing it with Vietnamese support and therefore Russian support. The reports say that not all of the victims died, but a number of them were left stretched out on the ground.
I went on to make a eulogy of those anti-communist heroes who continue fighting for their country even now when everything seems lost. Then I shut off the recorder. From hand to hand, my friends passed it on to him.
I cast my eyes on the “enemy camp.” They were all talking about other matters. “He” went on staring at us, but with his mind completely absorbed in his cigarette. All the sharp points in his face had gone limp. He stretched out his hand to take the recorder and said only, “Okay.” He averted his gaze and then turned his back on us.
The really odious thesis that it is legitimate in principle to exterminate any adversary with poison gas no longer infuriated those moderate leftists. Why? Because it was not advocated by rightists as they had hoped, but by communists; who not only defend it, but actually put it into practice. So…those “moderates” no longer hated the idea.
The only thing that is real about the whole story that I have just told you is the poison gas bombardment the communists perpetrated against the valiant Laotian Hmong. The pizzeria and its clients, the angular man and his friends, and my own circle of friends are nothing more than a little tale. A little tale designed to bring out in a symbolic way what the psychology of hatred of many, and very many “moderate” leftists is really like.
“My God, save me from my friends; I will take care of my enemies,” Voltaire used to say. I say, in my turn: “Save me, my God, from the ‘moderates;’ I’ll fend off the hot-heads.”