A 'sharing' place… time for sharing
Last weekend I car-shared for the first time. I’ve reached that level of broke. The level where you get in a car with a complete stranger, the only info you have about him being “Paul, male, 50-60 years old”. He offered me a lift to Sunderland free of charge and I was both intrigued to meet this man who offered something for nothing, and apprehensive. And I had reason to be. It turned out I could hardly have got into the car with a more dangerous person. When he told me what his job was I had two options… either get out of the car immediately, or play dumb and use this ridiculous opportunity to hear from the Head of Weapons at BAE Systems, a man responsible for the death of thousands. I chose the second option. “Is that the arms company?”
Inches away from me was a man who’d sold missiles to Gadaffi, fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. His F-16 fighter jets had bombarded Gaza and turned its children to dust. But I’m not going to describe the unforgivable horrors of war, anyone can do that. I stopped myself from voicing these thoughts and whenever the topic steered to his work (as often as possible without appearing too interested) I looked out of the window so that he wouldn’t see me shudder as he gave an insight into the world’s bloodiest industry.
Paul had an easy personality. He likes to sit in his car and stare out to sea, he goes on package holidays. He lives with his girlfriend and his son wants to study history. He likes curry. He laughs, he jokes, he smiles. He describes dropping missiles from planes as “sexy”. That’s what it was like! I would find myself inadvertently reciprocating his friendliness and then he would humiliate us both by bringing the obscenity of his work into the car with us. And it was a very small car. A flash car. He earns 100k a year, owns two cars (a Ferrari and the sports coupe we were in) and two houses, all paid for by the production and sale of instruments of war. UNICEF provides us with the overwhelming statistic that 90% of war casualties are civilian… and this man worked for the second largest arms company in the world, consciously profiting from the killing of innocents. How could he talk about likes and dislikes? How could he talk about retiring to the Lake District, when he’s provided machinery which has taken away that privilege from so many others? My mind was blown.
One protest I participated in against BAE Systems was what’s known as a “die-in”. It’s what it sounds like. At a careers fair at Lancaster University we wore bloody clothing and dropped dead at the BAE stall to illustrate what you sign up to when you deal in arms. Yet, when I asked Paul whether people ever reacted badly to his talks etc., he said no. He said one time a student got so excited by one of his talks he had an asthma attack, another time a student argued to the point of tears, but he spoke of these stories as light-hearted anecdotes and mentioned no other forms of protest. He’d trained himself not to acknowledge the segment of the population which makes it necessary for extra security measures to be taken when BAE enters campuses and which makes secrecy a fundamental feature of their company. He’d immunised himself to opposition.
Whilst he wouldn’t acknowledge arguments against, he did tell me why he was in favour of arms. You’ll be delighted to hear, he does it for us! Yes, for you and me. He said he sells arms “so that people like you” can have opinions on things. His example being that “if somewhere like Saudi Arabia was able to take control of us because we couldn’t defend ourselves with weapons, they’d force their way of life on us and women couldn’t drive”. Women, let’s be thankful that Paul at BAE is protecting our right to drive by selling arms to tyrannical regimes (including that of Saudi).
When we arrived in Sunderland I tore the smile off my face and vented my frustration on my unfortunate friend. The weekend passed too quickly in a delightful blur of rum and dancing (and rowing but that’s enough about THAT eh Leah?!:)<3) and when Sunday came I dreaded getting back in the car. But there was no alternative but to pretend again.
On the return trip I asked Paul if there were any restrictions on the kinds of weapons BAE are allowed to sell. He said yes, there are some, for example cluster bombs which BAE used to sell but are now not allowed to (these kill indiscriminately and are illegal under international law, the Convention on Cluster Munitions). He then said he knows BAE sell platforms which are bought with the explicit intention of dropping clusters from, therefore telling me that BAE’s only ethical policies are ones installed by law. He watched my expression as he said this. I hid my disgust shamefully well.
Soon after he surprised me by saying how, when he was at university, the Palestinian and Jewish societies had competed to get more members than one another. Since we were nearly back I told him I was president of the Palestine solidarity society. He looked shocked I held a political stance on something. He surely wondered if I knew about the huge volume of BAE produce in the hands of the IDF. What he said next made me feel even worse than when he said he sold bombs for my benefit. “This is why the arms industry is so important. We need it for countries like Palestine. Because if Palestine had weapons, America would respect it. Israel would leave it alone.You need weapons to be able to defend yourself, to not be walked all over.” He then said Israelis have their army, but Palestinians too have their army. I told him no, the Palestinians have no comparable army (Palestinian annual military expenditure is $3 million, whereas Israel’s 2012 military expenditure was $15.2 billion). Paul has no idea of how his company’s sales influence politics because to him only countries with a large stockpile of weapons exist on the playing field. Weapons are sold to those who can afford them (or those who can’t, spending millions on weapons when their people live in poverty).
We reached Lancaster and I grew anxious about our parting moments. The car stopped. “It was nice to meet you” he said. I wondered if it was worth just leaving the car – he’d offered me lifts to Sunderland whenever I liked, and it could have been useful to know about future BAE plans on campus which had the potential to be disrupted… but after six hours I couldn’t let him leave thinking he’d made a friend. I said what I wanted, instead.
“When you first said you worked for BAE, I didn’t know whether to get straight out of the car, or wait and see if you could in any way justify what you do.” Realisation dawned on his face, and he turned away to look straight forward, sneering but listening. “I’ve listened to everything you’ve said. I may be a 20 year old arts student but I know what’s justified and what isn’t. You talk about women’s right in Saudi Arabia, then say you sell to Saudi. You say arms exist for countries like Palestine, yet you sell F-16s to the IDF which bomb Palestinian children. You say you sell weapons for people like me, so we can have liberty and opinions, but you can’t say that. You in no way represent me by what you do. You’re responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Your hands…” He’d become unrecognisable. I pitied him, but then I thought of his victims and their families.
“I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel horrible, but…” I began.
“I don’t feel horrible.”
Hope none of you expected anything more exciting to happen