The Big State

I used to wonder how the German citizens could have let the Holocaust happen, but have since experienced the helplessness that government actions makes me feel. I think this piece by James Tate is a perfect summary of the feeling of vague guilt and helplessness in the face of the State.

The Sweep

A friend of mine, Claude Larkin, was taken into custody
yesterday and was being held on suspicion, suspicion of what
I don’t know. Claude was probably the most upright citizen
I knew. A reporter I know called me. “I’m just concerned,” she
said, “because I’ve never seen the police be so secretive. They wouldn’t
tell me what he’s being charged with. And when I asked them when
I might be able to see him, they told me he has already been
transported to federal facilities,” Patricia said. “Federal?”
I said. “That sounds scary. Jesus, you know Claude, they don’t come
any straighter than him. It must be some kind of mistake.” “Well,
yes, it certainly seems that way, but it is also my experience that
you don’t really know anybody. I mean, you know one side of them,
but there’s also another hidden side. Some cases of this are more
dramatic than others,” she said. “Well, in theory I’m sure you’re
right, but I’ve known Claude for a very long time and as much
as it might delight me to find out he has a hidden side, I’m afraid he
just doesn’t,” I said. She said she would get back to me if she
learned anything. As the weeks passed by I became more and more
obsessed with the fate of Claude Larkin, but to my shame I did
nothing because I hadn’t the slightest idea what I could do. The
federal government is so huge and it can tell you or not tell you
anything it wants. I kept going over everything I knew about Claude.
Insurance salesman, plays golf and tennis moderately well, widower,
dines alone most evenings, watches old movies, never talks politics.
I realized I didn’t know much about Claude Larkin. There were
an awful lot of blank spaces, which was strange, because I counted
him among my best friends. At the time of his wife’s death I had
told Claude he could move in with me if he didn’t want to be alone.
He thanked me and told me that he needed to be alone. He took off
work for just a week. His wife had worked for some politician, but
I was never sure who. Claude had been gone several months when I
called Patricia back. “The F.B.I. won’t return my calls. The one
person there I’ve been able to talk to said it was classified
information. It’s been a dead-end everywhere I’ve turned,” she said.
“I’ve been thinking about something you said, that you don’t really
know anybody. I realized I didn’t know Claude all that well, there
could have easily been another side to him,” I said. “Did I say
that? It seems like such a romantic thing to say. People tend to
believe reporters way too easily. I’m sure you knew Claude Larkin
perfectly well,” she said. No, I thought, I didn’t know him at all.
I drove by his house and parked in front of it. All the blinds were
drawn, but the grass was mown. His wife traveled with the politician,
but Claude never expressed any concern over this. Perhaps he didn’t
even love her, I don’t know. I never saw him sad or depressed.
Claude’s eye was always on something else, I now realized. If I
beat him at golf, he didn’t seem to mind. He’d buy the drinks and
toast me. I thought it was his good nature, but now I see he just
didn’t care. He wasn’t really there. He never was. I resolved
to let him go. It was around that time I noticed I was being followed
and my house was being watched. I called Patricia and mentioned
it to her. She told me that a sweep was being conducted around
the country. I said a sweep of what? “Of suspects,” she said.
“I know, but suspects of what?” I said. She said she didn’t know.
“It’s Claude, isn’t it?” I said. Claude had given them my name
in return for his own life, but I was innocent. Even as I said
the word, doubt began to set in. I listed what I knew about me.
Something was missing. It just didn’t add up. I started watching
myself very carefully, I was the prime suspect in my life.

James Tate, from Paris Review


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