Panic For Profit

Make The Boogie Man Go Away At The Push Of A Button!
By Jeff Smith

SOMETIMES THE LIGHT dawns slowly; sometimes the dark seems never to end. But if you're paying attention, there's illumination out there beyond the gloom.

Smith I have found myself troubled, these past few years, at the divergent paths many of my old and dear friends and I have taken--they, more or less on a single, well-beaten track, and I on another. Mine are not the only footprints on the road I am taking: There are others, but they are not Birkenstocks.

Leaving the cozy world of metaphor, what I'm getting at is the gulf that grows between me and my old liberal brothers and sisters. They think I've grown reactionary in my rustic hermitage, and I think they've gone soft in brain and body. I find myself living among more cultural conservatives than was my custom, and working around lunatic libertarians like Emil Franzi. It has offered me the chance to observe these creatures in their natural habitats, a brighter and more open perspective than the petting-zoo that is party politics.

And as I said, if you're attentive, the little light-bulb of awareness eventually comes on.

It lit for me the other day while scanning the morning paper, checking my e-mail and monitoring CNN Headline News on the telly with that sort of resident background program our little brain computers employ to alert us to late-breaking developments. The voice-over was noticeably more insistent than the anchor's thorazined monotone, so I glanced up to see a shot of an automatic teller machine and hear a message calculated to gladden the hearts of Americans who need to be able to lay their hands on $200 cash at 3 a.m. This new class of needy, I discover from the media, is vast and growing daily. By their very numerosity I perhaps should understand them, but I do not. I will pay heed and eventually the veil will lift.

The good news was an invention, by an electronics firm in Georgia, of yet another form of beeper, this one soft-wired into ATMs, and through them to the mother bank, thence to a security company and finally from the security firm to the police, via a good old-fashioned telephone and the buttons nine, one and one. The reporter fairly glowed with the joy of bringing such glad tidings, and the persons-on-the-street he randomly interviewed seemed nigh overwhelmed with relief.

Now, praise Jesus, they could pop by the handiest ATM--the one off the alley behind the bus station--in the darkest hour before dawn, and get a fistful of crisp twenties for God knows what pre-dawn purpose, without fear of getting fragged, robbed and left for dead.

And their savior is something called the Personal Panic Button. Hallelujah.

The way it works is, you're standing at the ATM getting your cash-fix and you notice this black TransAm pull up and disgorge five large guys in cammo clothing and ski-masks. Since there are no other cars but yours and the TransAm and it's oh-dark:30, you think something may be amiss and you hit the red button on your new beeper, provided to you by your friendly banker, free, plus a $5 monthly charge. The Panic Button immediately alerts some sleepy ex-7-11 clerk who is making minimum wage on the graveyard shift in a hole-in-the-wall office, where a computer screen flashes a signal from the very ATM in front of which you are standing--shivering in fear. Perhaps ducking behind to avoid the hail of bullets from the five guys who arrived in the TransAm.

But that computer screen, however far away, instantly knows your location and your very own name, thanks to your electronically coded Personal Panic Button, and the loser in the chair in front of that screen--if he's awake--is supposed to pick up the phone, call 9-1-1 and tell another person on the other end of the line that his employer's customer (your name here) is at (your location here) and feeling panicky. Presumably the 911 operator will key the mike and shout, "Calling all cars: go save (your) ass at the bus station."

Yeah, right.

"Within 20 seconds," the reporter gushes, "the police will have your name and location."

"Wow," says the interviewee, "I would be so much more secure."

Yes, and so would the bank. Five dollars a month more secure, for every deluded fool who signs on for his own Personal Panic Button.

Overworked and underpaid, in need of coffee and donuts, how speedily do you imagine the police might respond to the cry of alarm of someone so spoiled, self-indulgent and scardy-cat that he carries his own Personal Panic Button? How long do you think it will take before Panic Button calls go beyond five thugs in ski-masks behind the bus station at night, to one dusty construction worker in a pickup truck, pulling up next to a new Mercedes at Casas Adobes Plaza at high noon?

And that's when the light dawned for me.

My old mainstream pals from the '60s--who seemed to care so passionately about human rights, individual liberty, personal freedom--want to be able to act on their whims without regard to strictures or limits, whether that whim be to get naked, burn a bra or draft card, scream "Dick Nixon" or take $200 out of a machine anytime, anywhere. Back then they believed government should not stand in their way. Today, since the government is their own, they feel government should get everyone else out of their way. I suppose it should have been a clue when so many of them made their living by walking to the mailbox for a trust check, but self-reliance is not as esteemed a virtue as it was in the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Of course my new conservative acquaintances take the opposite view, sort of. They give great mouth to self-reliance, so long as it means they don't have to share any part of what they accumulate to help the less fortunate. Or educate other people's kids.

Both sides are damnably selfish. One side believes the state can take care of everyone, everywhere, all the time. The other believes the state can do nothing, never, nowhere, except let them make all the money they can grab, and get out of the way.

Both sides are wrong.

The part of the Liberal in this vignette is played by the frightened victim with the Personal Panic Button. The part of the Conservative is played by the banker who sold the victim this placebo. The part of Reality is played by the cops and robbers, whose job it is to keep each other in business. TW

Image Map - Alternate Text is at bottom of Page

Tucson Weekly's Talk Back

 Page Back  Last Week  Current Week  Next Week  Page Forward

Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Cinema | Back Page | Forums | Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth