June 25, 2012

"Means of Suppressing Demonstrations"

By Shani Boianjiu
~5100 words

An Israeli army officer stationed at a road block is confronted by an increasingly-insistent group of Palestinian demonstrators.

The third-person narrative centers on the officer, a twenty-one-year-old woman named Lea, who is in charge of the checkpoint. The other main character is a nineteen-year-old Israeli soldier, Tomer, with whom Lea is engaged in a sexual relationship. While most days transpire in absolute boredom, one afternoon near the end of Lea's service three Palestinian demonstrators appear: two men in their thirties and a young boy "with his fingers in his mouth." One of the men explains politely that they have come to protest the blockage of the road. He goes on—"more like a bank customer asking for an increase of his credit limit than like a demonstrator"—to present a rather unusual request:
"Is there any way you could disperse us just a little—enough for a press blast, or something?"
Lea and Tomer accede to the petition, resorting to an army instruction manual that suggests a gradual escalation of tactics beginning with the most harmless: shock grenades. When the latter fail to produce the desired "press blast," the demonstrators return with earplugs and request additional intervention. The next tactic recommended in the manual is tear gas, which turns the victims' faces "red and wet and screaming" and sends them running; they come back with lab goggles and surgical masks. Then it's on to rubber bullets, after which the protesters return with bits of mattresses tied to their legs. At this point there's only one weapon left in the arsenal: live fire. Rather than resort to this option, Lea and Tomer find a pretext for arresting the boy, and the story ends as they escort him to the base:
"Through the eyes of a villager looking out from the light of a very distant house, they could have been a family."
Like a firecracker tossed into a powder keg, this story is bound to provoke heated reactions, especially among those with strong opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many readers—especially readers of liberal publications like The New Yorker—may be uncomfortable with the narrative point of view, perhaps feeling that it portrays the Israeli army too sympathetically. But a close look at Lea's expertly developed character disrupts any such reading:
She knew that her military service was approaching its end, but could not feel it. She could not imagine or remember any of the things she had wanted before she became a soldier, and struggled to find things she wanted for her civilian life ahead. She guessed that she must want a family, or to get into a good school, but she guessed this from the data around her. She did not feel the want herself.
Is it not difficult to sympathize with an institution that hollows out individuals to this extent? Indeed, Lea's numbness reaches a point where she cannot feel her own body, imagining that her spine has snapped as Tomer presses her into the concrete on which they have sex and pulls her hair "so hard that her scalp buzzed." She feels like a ghost that "could not open drawers [or] pick up a coffee cup." As the story culminates, it becomes clear that Lea has internalized the eponymous Means of Suppressing Demonstrations, erasing her own identity to the point that her relationship with Tomer becomes, tellingly, a "plea for shock."

"Means of Suppressing Demonstrations" is a brilliant piece of writing that upsets preconceived notions of gender, nationality, and power. Like all great fiction, it poses uncomfortable questions and thwarts facile conclusions. The sinewy, slightly alien quality of the prose, while it may not be intentional, only adds to the story's effectiveness.


Reader poll: I found "Means of Suppressing Demonstrations" to be ___.

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