Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
The next morning was December 31, the big day. I turned on the TV as soon as I awoke.
Midnight had already passed uneventfully in Australia. I looked across the street to the Washington Post building, pulled out my binoculars (I knew they’d come in handy), and peered into the windows. There didn’t seem to be any commotion. Everything—the streets, the hotel, the air—seemed quiet and still, reassuring yet eerie.
To kill time before the concert, Bianca and I went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Looking back on the man-made atrocities that had occurred just fifty-five years ago made the Y2K bug seem benign. All the predictions of the extremists paled in comparison to the concentration camps, mobile death squads, and bloody reprisals of the Nazis and their vision of a new world order.
One of the most unsettling things about Adolf Hitler is that he wasn’t necessarily an imperialist, like Napoleon or William McKinley. He wasn’t just trying to subjugate other countries. His goal was to cleanse them, to wipe out the so-called weak races and speed the evolution of the human species through the propagation of the Aryan race. And for seven years, he got away with it. Few of the most brutal periods in medieval history—from the sack of Rome to the early Inquisition—were as coldly barbaric as what happened in our supposedly enlightened modern Western civilization.
And though I left the museum with the reassuring message that the world stood up and said “never again” to genocide, it only took a minute of reflection to realize that it happened again—immediately. In the USSR, Stalin continued to deport, starve, and send to work camps millions of minorities. As the bloody years rolled on, genocides occurred in Bangladesh in 1971, Cambodia in 1975, Rwanda in 1994, and in Bosnia in the mid-1990s.
All these genocides occurred in ordinary worlds where ordinary people went about ordinary business. The Jews were integrated into every aspect of the German social and professional strata before the Holocaust. The entire educated class in Cambodia—teachers, doctors, lawyers, anyone who simply wore glasses—was sent to death camps. And as Philip Gourevitch wrote in his book on the Rwanda massacre, “Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in their homes, and colleagues hacked colleagues to death in their workplaces. Doctors killed their patients, and schoolteachers killed their pupils.”
This sudden snapping of the social contract had always fascinated and terrified me—not just genocides, but also much smaller-scale instances of group violence, such as the riots in the United States triggered by Martin Luther King’s assassination, the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. At its root, most people’s fear of the millennium had less to do with the loss of electricity than with the snap that could follow if the system broke down.
So what I ultimately learned at the Holocaust Museum was not “never again,” but “again and again and again.” Maybe even tonight.
After leaving the museum, Bianca and I met Trisha Yearwood in the hotel lobby to take special buses, which had been swept for bombs by the Secret Service, to the Lincoln Memorial. Police escorts raced us through the streets, lights flashing, sirens Dopplering. When we arrived at the concert, we went through a battery of metal detectors, security questions, and bag searches. I wondered if the extremists had won, making us—the so-called normal people—just as paranoid as they were.
“Under Clinton’s seat,” McCain’s assistant told me, “there’s a trapdoor and a staircase, which leads to a limousine that always has its engine on, in case there’s trouble.”
McCain was assigned a seat directly behind Clinton, but rather than seeing this as a choice seat in the emergency exit aisle, his assistant feared it would be a Republican catastrophe. “I have to get him moved,” he said. “If their photo is taken together, it could reflect badly on Senator McCain’s campaign.”
This was why only the uptight, small-minded kids in school got involved in politics, I thought. It’s not about changing the world. It’s still about what lunch table you sit at.
We shuffled to the greenroom to join the performers, politicians, and undercover agents. China had made it past midnight without a glitch—and in a celebration so beautiful it seemed like the ruling culture of this next century would once more be the East. Other than the millennium clock shutting down on the Eiffel Tower, Europe was clear as well.
Across the world, political situations seemed to be resolving. One hundred and fifty-five hostages on an Indian Air jet hijacked to Afghanistan were freed. Boris Yeltsin stepped down as Russia’s president. The NASDAQ hit a record high. More good omens for a new millennium. I could feel a collective sigh of relief around me. It looked like we were going to be okay. Not just today, but forevermore.
Compared to China’s costumed and colorful blowout, America’s millennium concert seemed bland and unfocused. At 11:45, as I stood in front of the stage trying to think of something special to do for the great anticlimax, Bianca ran over with a plastic cup of champagne.
“Trish wants us to join her backstage,” she said. “She’s s’posed to sing ‘America the Beautiful’ at 12:05.”
We rounded the scaffolding, showed our passes, and walked through the rigging to arrive stage right. Trisha, flanked by Quincy Jones and Kris Kristofferson, stretched out a boyfriend-less hand and grimly accepted a cup from Bianca. Several men in black suits stood directly in front of us. I looked at their backs and noticed that just ahead of them—less than twenty feet away—President Clinton stood, waffling into the microphone.
He was saying something about the unique responsibility we had to lead the world. “The sun will always rise in America as long as each new generation lights the fire of freedom,” he concluded. It sounded good. But, really, when you think about it, what the fuck does that mean?
Before any of us had time to think about it, the countdown began.
I took a photograph in Clinton’s general direction that looked like this. The Secret Service men didn’t even turn their heads:
The lights didn’t go out. The power didn’t shut down. The world didn’t end. Overhead, the artificial sun flickered and sputtered to life, much to the relief of many stagehands. We were all still here, shouting and hugging, engaged in the same annual ritual of forced festivity.
Atop the Lincoln Memorial, I saw a line of Secret Service men with night-vision goggles, aiming rifles into the crowd. And I remembered my pledge to avoid spending New Year someplace with guns. I guess I’d broken my promise.
I wondered what Bob Rutz and his band of psalm-quoting survivalists were thinking at their last skate. Had they wasted their time and money building their Arkansas compound?
I was glad I hadn’t fallen for the survivalists’ panic. For a moment, they’d almost had me scared. But at least I was in good company. Judging by the conversations I’d had here, they’d almost had everyone scared.
When the concert ended, we boarded a bus to the White House. At various checkpoints, we were sniffed by dogs; our IDs and social security numbers were examined; and we were frisked by a blond, mustachioed man, who was hopefully part of the White House security team and not just some random pervert.
The first person we saw when we entered the building was Muhammad Ali, perhaps a perfect symbol for the decade to come—a former powerhouse battling a degenerative disease. Next to him Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, and Robert De Niro were talking in a huddle. To me, these were famous people, embodiments of the American dream. But to Bianca, emboldened by alcohol, they were bowling pins. She threw me against the wall, breath reeking of champagne, and drawled, “You’re my guest. Don’cha run away from me.”
So I walked away.
It was my first time in the White House, and the middle two floors of the building were almost completely open for guests to wander through. The first illegal act I committed was stealing this hand towel from the bathroom, solely because it had a presidential seal on it:
In truth, the White House never held much mystique for me. The kids who were interested in politics, who formed the Young Republicans Club, who volunteered to work in local elections, were the boring ones. Powerless at the playground and parties, they were only able to feel self-important in a controlled environment like politics with specific rules and prestigious titles.
I know because I was one of those uncool kids. I was in student council. I volunteered to staff polling places on election days. I even joined the Young Republicans Club. I didn’t really know the difference between Democrats and Republicans. I just wanted to belong to something and to bond with the slightly cooler uncool kids I so self-respectlessly followed.
As I listened to Barney Frank, the only openly gay congressman, urge a nearby gay couple to get on the dance floor to send a message to his fellow politicians, I felt a large claw grab my shoulder. “We’re going home,” Bianca hissed in my ear, upset that I’d slipped away from her.
An hour later, we were back on the private plane, leaving as suddenly as we’d arrived. As everyone else tried to sleep, Bianca—more drunk and aggressive than I’d ever seen her—kept turning my swivel chair to face hers and talking dirty. “I want you to, y’know, cum in my face. I’ve never done that before. What does it taste like?”
I told her it was kind of like eating lychee nuts. I’m not sure why that image came to mind.
As the New Year’s sun rose behind the plane, Bianca thrust across the seat, lowered her dress, and stuck her breasts in my face. This, I thought, was an uncomfortable way to begin a new millennium. I just wanted to escape.
When I finally made it home, I checked my e-mail before going to sleep. There was a message from one of my new doomsdayer friends: “Hi, Neil Strauss, it’s Tim Chase. This new president Putin in Russia? Interesting that he became the Russian president as the millennium changed. He could be the one, the Prince of Darkness.”
And I knew then that I’d made the right choice. There will only be one millennium party at the White House. But there will always be another apocalypse.