War is a mall. If countries are now corporations then war is a mall. Like so: Interior of Trafalgar Mall, day or night, you can’t tell. A cannon is wheeled forth at the mouth of Lady Footlocker on Level Two. Across the main atrium guns are readied at The Price of His Toys. A stand-off on the high seas of commerce. Puppies and goldfish anxiously pace along their glass, a pregnant stillness gathers in the air. As the opening bell sounds shots ring out: SALE SALE FIRE FIRE; bouquets of potpourri penetrate the air in acrid autumn tones. General Lavender Woodsy, spokes-hero for Seasons (A Home Place), softly shouts the duty of the family: to reward with gifts this season, to present the physical magnitude of our devotion, to not be caught out on the day of religious singularity without gifts.
War is a mall waged on a captive population. It begins with disorientation and ends with overwhelming firepower. A people without a past is a people without a future. A mall is always without history, in no way rooted to the parcel of land it obscures. The mall purports to be several months ahead of where it really is: back-to-school in June, Winter ’08 in October. It is about planning ahead, which is the only discernible reason for Costco (a year’s supply of paper towels, a palette of ketchup, Donald Rumsfeld’s memoirs). This also reflects a wartime reality: hoarding in preparation for a day when one might run out and not be able to make it to the store. A mall encourages the making of lists: Ted’s ties, Marjorie’s birthday, dinner this Friday, contraception, candlesticks, promise of a lasting peace for the space of a few hours. It is easy to attack a mall, easy to attack a people driven through its Habitrail, easy to critique a society at its most naked point of consumption. From the outside the mall is a sitting duck filled with fish in barrels. (And there are actual fish in barrels, as the nervous, net-dodging swimmers at Petland know all too well.) It is a Trojan horse where you run in and are surprised and fooled.
It is easy to make fun of a mall until you stop and think about the daily reality of the people who have to be there. Those who work there, for instance. After taxes, after eight hours under a circular thrum of commercial bubblegum, after serving people who get to be kings and queens for these few precious minutes and assume an air of deadly royalty, after a tuna salad sandwich and a cigarette on a windy slab of the parking garage. What is left after these things? Maybe sixty-eight dollars; maybe eighty-six dollars after a couple years. It is easy to humiliate people for their dreams. The mall humiliates people through the ostentatious smallness of the dreams it offers.
It is unfair to invoke the current siege on Gaza at this point. One cannot hope to see this raging assault from within the muted and continuous air of the mall, with its changing breeze of waffle cones and burnt coffee, Democrat and Republican, millionaire and pauper. If one were to go into Barnes & Noble they would find a whole section devoted to the Middle East and they would still not be able to see the dead families and flattened, thrice-bombed buildings. They would encounter a lot of moral language about responsibility and equivalence, about necessary restraint. Even if one went to the highest mall in the land, the U.N., one would hear nothing stronger than a “thorough condemnation” and a calling upon both sides to return to the table. One would hear things expressed in the strongest terms possible, a Dovey refrain, that comes like sweet muzak across the sea to the war’s architects in Israel. The muzak says, “Bomb quicker and more, because sooner or later we will have to do or say something of consequence.” Can one captive population see another captive population? There are two sets of walls and thousands of miles between them, each mile choked with meticulously crafted information. And yet captive populations always feel an affinity for one another, because they know the bitter taste of freedom visible yet withheld, like an inmate sniffing chocolate from Ghirardelli square. The inmate doesn’t want chocolate; he wants the freedom to walk by the chocolate to his own sweet destiny, to his own foolish dreams of love and agency.
It reminds me of a book I read as a child called “The Wump World.” The Wumps were beaver-like creatures in a fictional green habitat that is converted into a mall. I still recall their jutting teeth and tender snouts as they hooked the sky for trouble. The books and games of our childhood hold such powerful association. They take a photograph of you in the moment and hold it within their covers. I remember, I think, the corner of the Berkeley library where we read this book and others, thrown around on the bean-bag chairs and shabby carpeted reading area. Children can relate to endangered creatures and the dream of home, a warren, a down. Children can relate to rabbits as quick-witted, wary animals. Keen in their senses, always reading without language, a pure visual emotionally inflected realm. Is the mall coming? It comes to all of us eventually – but it is ours to decide whether we make our way back out into a world with actual coordinates and breathable air.