Bomb threats had been out of vogue for some time. Only minor thugs with bad imaginations – too many hours of Die Hard reruns and not enough love as a child – would stoop to something as pedestrian as phoning in “a blast.” Such enervated acts of terror were yawns, handled by a single old basset hound decorated with heavy medallions of scares past. The rows of badges depicting C4 and dynamite sagged the dog’s brocade vest. The effect was that of an aging general–more or less dead–paraded around on a prop throne to assure the junta that all was going well.
Things, though, were not well. In the years that had passed, since bomb threats became the stuff of minor thugs with bad imaginations, the “threat culture” had exploded. Masterminds would casually scrawl promises to surreptitiously tickle unexpectant ladies. Rich sons of princes, sheikhs, and scorned Nantucket women trained at terror academies, penning extravagant plans to replace prize rose gardens with fields of kudzu and geraniums. The most cold-blooded simply phoned in vague apocalypses to local churches and news stations. “It’s over.” “Goodbye.” “Perhaps today will be the end?”
Officially, none of these threats ever actualized. Of course, it’s hard to really say. The sheer volume of things suggested, sworn, and intimated discounted any certainty on the matter. A fat man in Germany would misplace his chips between couch cushions and the conspiracy theorists would point to a lone sticker found on a Shropshire electrical box, “Try to find your crisps tomorrow.” The violent husband of a loathsome woman would get punched in a barfight, and the town would be gripped by the fear of rumors that a threater had called in a wallop. A clumsy child would skin his knees on a piece of untoward sidewalk: “Even the proud shall fall.”
Debates wore on about how much or how little of modern life was caused or, at the very least, predicted by these threats. The threats had effectively revived every manner of faith. It was a banner time for clerics, astrologers and determinists. A certain school, the New Realists — locals called them the Neo-Terrorists — held that everything that happened was the fulfillment of a threat. They were rather Borgesian and entirely derivative. The logical consequence was that even our greatest joys–marriage, sex, strong drink–should inspire great horror as they were the work of conniving mutterers and shadowy note-leavers. It was an unpopular line of thought–for obvious reasons–but managed to stay in the spotlight due to the vocal advocacy of New Realism by the busty, tremendously popular Kate Sexton. She hosted that show where cats strive for glory, Glory Cats.
Whether the threats amounted to everything or nothing, they were all taken very seriously. Every day, an administrator would appear on a local broadcast, brows furrowed, and deliver a series of disconcerting proclamations. “We have reason to believe that there will be an attempt to replace all navel oranges with smallish grapefruits.” “A postcard sent to dear Mrs. Pemberton suggests that a disturbed youth has buried a lightbulb in the city hall gardens.” “Pay close attention to your children, a thief is vowing to rob them of the last lick of their ice cream.” There were so many of these public service announcements that the local cable began to carry a station devoted to them. The city hired an alderman to somberly deliver the bad news several times an hour. Ratings were quite good. Between threat announcements, back episodes of Teen Mom and Glory Cats were aired.
On a daily basis, buildings were cleared and swept for suspected produce vandals. Hedgerows were torn out and the soil tilled in search of hidden glass. Ice cream stands and cart vendors forbade all licking within 100 meters of their premises. This last “declaration of order” incited a particularly lively debate at the weekly town hall. Parents protested that it was just impossible to keep their youngsters from starting on their snack –have you ever tantalized a baby with rocky road!–and the subsequent arrests were becoming an annoyance. Ice cream vendors added that “the last lick” of an ice cream cone would likely occur outside of the 100 meter radius and that the law should be amended to mandate all ice cream consumption take place within 100 meters of a certified ice cream retailer. A local statistician and mint chocolate chip enthusiast crunched the numbers, made a model, and declared that “the last lick” of an ice cream would take place 121 meters away from the place of purchase, adjusting for number of scoops. The New Realists came forth and demanded that all children be investigated. Since most last licks of children’s ice cream cones were indeed had by children, everything pointed to children as the likely executors–and, ipso facto, orginators–of the threat. The meeting ended with a wholesale ban on ice cream.
This was one of the less severe enactments in the name of public safety. Letter writing was banned –“how can these nuisances leave threats if they have nothing to leave them on!”–and, in short order, stationery was outlawed and pens became contraband. Smirkers were subject to search and seizure and “hiding something” was fiercely prohibited. The ranks of professional meterologists, electoral pollsters, and SportsCenter commentators were summarily disbanded. After all, “a prediction is just a gussied-up threat.” Members of the clergy and horoscope readers were given reprieve under the common wisdoms that a threat is not very serious if it takes place in the afterlife and that horoscopes are always optimistic.
Driven underground, these analysts formed a secret society of prognosticatory readiness. Black markets sprang up in the seedy parts of town. Hookers, meth chefs and “guys in a band” were driven out by ranks of stock brokers, doctors and police looking to “score a future” on share prices, the ailments of patients, and tips about upcoming crimes. Often, officers of the law would get trapped in endlessly recursive conversations about predicting the crime they were committing by asking for crime predictions on this black market. The boys in blue lost a lot of good men to these analytic K-holes.
Eventually, things began to deteriorate. What’s now called “the darkest time yet” began in an ordinary physics classroom. Mr. Miller — who didn’t resemble Ryan Gosling, star of Half Nelson, in the faintest — was delivering a lecture about inertia when he said the fateful, “If Bobby would throw a baseball at the house, a window would break.” He was illustrating how bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, overcoming even the tendencies of glass to stay at rest. An over-protective mother got wind of this glass-breaking hypothetical and immediately demanded that the school fire the teacher. There was no doubt that his subjunctive conditional was clearly a threat. There was no doubt that all subjunctive conditionals were threats and “if anyone were to deliver a subjunctive conditional, they would be immediately incarcerated.” The law made itself very difficult to articulate and, after some parents made “Throw the law in jail. It’s an accessory to a crime” signs, the law was reworded: “Subjunctive conditionals are punishable by jail time.”
In response to Mr. Miller’s jailing, a group of students, “Bobby’s Kids” or “The Breakers” began to protest the draconian rule. They inscribed themselves with Miller’s now-famous pronouncement “If Bobby would throw a baseball at the house, a window would break.” and began a fusillade against the town’s glass. No one seemed terribly alarmed by this. The gang had never promised or threatened to throw baseballs through everyone’s windows. They couldn’t very well be prosecuted under any of the anti-threat ordinances and police had “bigger fish to fry” than some non-pre-ordained attack. Cantankerous as usual, the New Realists argued that by simply by repeating their projectile assault, they were implicitly promising it would continue and therefore guilty of threat-making. They labeled this claim, “The Reverse Xeno.” This original definition of “The Reverse Xeno” was quickly eclipsed by a far more inspired, far more vulgar definition on the site UrbanDictionary.com.
The New Realists’ position was convincing and an order was put out for the arrest of “Bobby’s Kids”, known by this point in the tabloids as “The Baseball Team.” Gregg Howard, the star catcher of The Baseball Team and ex-member of the New Realists, responded by writing a scathing op-ed and publishing it in the local “pape.” In it, he put forth the idea that if subjunctive conditionals were “gussied-up threats” and patterned occurrences could be considered as damning evidence of the same, there was really no place for laws of nature. Rightfully, this inspired mass hysteria. A sinister subtext was found in Newton–“it will stay in motion!”–and Euclid fared no better, egged on by pamphlet titles such as “The Slavish Horror of Proofs of Parallelism: The Yoke of Linearity.” Astronomers shrank from the obvious terrorism of Descartes’ optics and a local boy, found out to be a descendant of Darwin, was tortured until he coughed up information regarding “what Chuck was planning.”
For fear of proving physical laws correct–and therefore “letting the G-ddamn scientific threat machine win” as a popular radio host put it –people began to recoil from even the simplest of tasks. Taxis were commissioned to “just drive me anywhere. No, with your eyes closed, asshole.” There was a public fire in which calculators, computers and abacuses were destroyed. Greeters handed out bingo ball hoppers and Plinko machines. Research labs were immediately commissioned to do experiments that could not be reproduced. It became quite difficult to determine whether or not they ever reached their funding criteria but this ambiguity was only a proof of their resounding success.
The New Realists were fast dissolving as well, giving in to constant in-fighting. A faction, the Old Realists, had risen up. They maintained that the threats had completely ceased, citing the evidence that most of the original threats had come from members of the faction themselves. “We all thought it was funny, ya know, that everyone would get so worked up about threatening to ‘paint a dog catlike’ or ‘make all the cheeseburgers into regular hamburgers’. We honestly didn’t even know what most of our threats meant. I don’t think the majority of them had any relationship to the realm of possible things a person can do. I dunno, maybe I’m a cynic.”
Of course, this argument was quickly dressed down by the other, older New Realists who, pointing out that they also were among those who phoned in threats, stuck to their premise that all perception of the world as discrete things was due to the Threat Culture. “Would a lamp really be a lamp if we didn’t have to take its shade off to check for explosives? ‘Lamp’ only has meaning insofar as we know how to decide whether or not it is the fulfillment of a threat which it most certainly is, given the right circumstances.” Therefore, the perceived world was always as such only in response to terror. A world without threats would be no world at all. Clearly, the threats had not abated in the least. The world was still a glistening thing-to-be-perceived as evidenced by the tremendous displays of baseballs breaking glass and cars smashing into telephone polls and scientists randomly mixing unlabeled vials of who-knows-what.
The Old Realists teamed up with Bobby’s Kids, who admitted to the rest of the threats–damn youths!–and waged war on the older New Realists who had rebranded themselves as “The Light Brigade” and recruited the dispossessed ranks of the black marketeers to fight with them. They held a series of best-of-three Tables, Ladders, and Chairs matches–which could not be advertised due to the conceptual proximity between advertising and threat-making–during which neither side landed a blow. They were men of words, after all.
In the midst of this chaos, Mr. Miller escaped. Some say that Bobby’s Kids busted him out, but remember the last line of the last sentence of the last paragraph: they were men of words after all. Some say that he was released after paying a small fine. Most agree that he simply walked out sometime around when they started burning computers. Totally naked, because by this point he was nothing but a literary device, Mr. Miller strolled into the town square and called everyone to attention. The feat wasn’t that impressive. Most people had stopped doing anything at all for fear of actualizing some forgotten threat or running afoul of some confusing law. A naked man on a soapbox was a welcome diversion. “All threats are threats,” he bellowed.
With just four words, Mr. Miller undid everything. The Old Realists concluded that “All threats are threats,” must be a legitimate threat on account that it did contain “threatening language”–according to the MPAA, anyway–and on account that none of them had made it. The Light Brigade had to acknowledge that “All threats are threats” didn’t really correspond to anything in the world–it was true whether or not there were threats at all–and therefore their belief in the universality of threats began to falter. The government was forced to abolish all of their threat ordinances, reasoning that, though certainly law-like, “All threats are threats” lacked a bit of predictive weight they associated with laws and, thus, threats. “I mean, it’s as much a history as it is a prediction. And it’s not really either. What the shit,” said the mayor. Without the anti-threat ordinances, the black market kind of lost its raison d’etre and went back to selling smack and pimping broads. And Mr. Miller? Well, he was found a few weeks ago, clutching a decommissioned grenade and swearing at the sky, by an old basset hound. One more medal for Scout.