My husband spent twenty-four years in Commando forces for the British Army. He was part of a sixty-man unit who trained with the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service and other elite branches. He is trained in arctic, desert and jungle warfare and served in both the Falklands War and Northern Ireland. After he retired in 2000, he worked for a company that offered hostile environment training to journalists.
We met on such a class after September 11, and I was on my way to Afghanistan. One of our long-standing couple's stories is how he came to see me off at Heathrow Airport on my way to Kabul with a gift of Israeli body armor. It had ceramic plates and was so heavy I could barely lift it off the ground. He told me to put it between the car door and me whenever I was a passenger (though movie directors would have us all think otherwise, car doors do not stop bullets).
He began to work as an international security consultant -- most often when local journalists were being killed or kidnapped, though also development workers or executives. He was not a bodyguard. His training was tactical: anti- and counter-surveillance, how to read a volatile situation, how to negotiate if one must because the goal is not to win. The goal is to live another day. Most often, he worked in places like Nairobi or Mexico City or Aceh, where the violence often made daily life almost impossible. In Aceh, the journalists were threatened with the murder of their entire families. From his hotel there, I spoke to him one night at three a.m. He'd unscrewed the ventilation cover in his room just in case he had to make a quick escape. A large stain running from the middle of the room to the door had soaked into the carpet and someone had tried unceremoniously to clean it up, but he suspected blood.
In all of these places, for all of these jobs in his post-military career, he never carried a gun.
In Aceh, I asked him what he would do if someone with a machete came at him. I pictured terrible things happening, blood spewing from him in arcs.
"Fight with my left arm," he said. He is right handed.
He does not carry a gun because he believes it puts you automatically on the opposite side of someone else. Because it makes you someone's enemy. Because you can't negotiate with a bullet.
He does not read the news stories from Newtown because he knows these stories all too well, he lived a kind of violence for so many decades. And for this past month, he has peeled me away from my computer when he sees the stories are starting to take over. Stop reading them, he says. Stop. He and I have a four-year-old daughter named Jazz. Somehow I feel I have to help keep those children in my living memory because I could not bear for the world to forget the wonder of my own daughter.
My husband's name is Paul and he does not believe guns have any place in a civilian's home. Gun clubs, hunting, these things he supports. And even he, trained as he is, will never have a gun in his home. As a tool of defense, they are far less effective than diplomacy, he believes.
For many years, we lived in Cambodia and he taught me to fire a 9 mm pistol, an AK-47 and an M-16. I was more effective with the AK than the others, but I did not like firing any of them. Some people find it sporty. I did not. It made me feel sick to my stomach.
Here is the moment that matters: It was 2002 and I was visiting him at his home in Dorset, England. He lived, then, about fifty meters from three different pubs. One late Sunday afternoon after a soccer match, scores of drunken men poured out from the pubs. We began to hear shouting and we looked out his upstairs bedroom window. A dark skinned man and his girlfriend -- maybe they were English-born Pakistani - was in a screaming match with four drunken white men. The man moved his girlfriend to the side and balled his fists. The yelling amplified. The four white men circled him. When they started shoving him, Paul ran down the stairs and out the door to them. He and I hadn't been dating long. Maybe a year. And I was a little giddy watching. I thought I was going to see my tough ex-Commando boyfriend in action. I pictured some slamming moves. I am ashamed now to have thought these things.
Paul put his arm around the Pakistani man and gently drew him a step away from the others. He spoke into the man's ear, so quietly no one else could have heard what he said. After a moment, he walked to the four others with his hands up in a surrender, and to them, too, he spoke so quietly. As he spoke, he kept walking very slowly so that they were forced to back up the slightest bit. He went back and forth between the two moving them each further away from each other by just increments. After five or so minutes, they were more than three meters from each other and both groups turned, the Pakistani man put his arm around his girlfriend, and the six of them wandered away in separate directions.
Anyone can shoot a gun. But what Paul had that day was real power. The kind of power that can neither be purchased nor stolen. The kind that needs no legislation. The kind we are all born with.
When he came back in the house, I asked Paul what he'd said to that Pakistani man. He shook his head. He put the kettle on for tea because this is how an ex-Commando relaxes.
"It's not worth it," he said.