Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 8.41.35 am
Type
Essay
Category
Culture
Violence

The gun

The year was 1987. Partway through a decade that became a chronology of catastrophe: the Falklands, Bhopal, the Challenger, Chernobyl, Iran Air, Lockerbie, the Exxon Valdez. A year that, evoked from a distance of almost thirty years, seems little more than a smudge on the horizon of history.

On an oppressive Friday afternoon in February, some lowly apparatchik handed me a cardboard box and at that moment I turned from benign post-adolescent into potential killer.

Inside the box: a silver-dull .357 magnum revolver, bag of ammunition and wire cleaning-brush – a gift earned by passing the requisite written tests and showing an aptitude for depositing bullets into the chests of human-shaped targets.

It was surely a step too far to consider someone so unformed, body besieged by testosterone, capable of carrying a weapon in public. Up until then, the very notion of maiming or killing another person would never even have entered my mind. Yet suddenly here I was, being handed a device with which to carry out such a task with ridiculous ease.

That I even knew what a magnum was could be put down to Clint Eastwood. The original Dirty Harry made quite an impression on me, the serviceable script, first-rate cinematography and stylish sound design combining to cloud over its underlying totalitarian principles. The action-riddled lives of Harry Callahan and other screen detectives leached into my subconscious, triggering some latent compulsion. From such trivialities, life paths can be forged.

So I applied to join the police academy and in due course took my place alongside two dozen other fresh-faced hopefuls. For six long months we studied laws and memorised regulations; we clambered over obstacle courses, practised combat techniques and marched aimlessly around a parade ground, withering under a barrage of hollered commands, until at last our inculcation was assumed complete and we were ready to be sent out into the world.

Our graduation ceremony took place on the same Friday that we received our firearms. Later that evening, my classmates descended upon the inner-city nightclubs to celebrate, as if six months of paramilitary bastardry could be washed away by sufficient quantities of alcohol.

Having already acquired a reputation as something of an outsider, I instead went straight home. As I drifted off to sleep, I could neither fully conceive of what had just been accomplished nor remotely comprehend what was about to begin.

The following Monday, my gun and I would be on the streets.

 

Once you get used to police work, it is for the most part as dull as a waterless ditch – routine tasks interspersed with reams of paperwork. But the inherent dangers are such that a spectre of menace hovers over every shift. I took quickly to it, managing situations as they arose and avoiding those that I could never have coped with.

A middle-aged man has placed a rifle to his chest and pulled the trigger. Somehow I deal with it. A hapless twenty-year-old attempting to console wife and daughter as they lie screaming at my feet.

A drug addict, prone on the footpath, has surged to life and commenced smashing his head against the side of our police car. Somehow I deal with it. Home in the middle of the night to exchange my blood-spattered shirt for a fresh one, I am back on patrol within the hour.

A schoolgirl has been in a motorcycle accident and I am delegated to lodge her at the city morgue. Somehow I deal with it. It is past midnight when they unzip her out of the body-bag; her head hits the stainless-steel table and for a moment she gurgles to life, a trickle of blood running out of her nose. I am taken aback to see her clad in a cheap yellow-blue jumper, identical to one I own; for perhaps the first time, death edges close enough to afford a glimpse of my own mortality.

The next morning I drowsed in bed, a combination of multiple nightshifts and accumulating anxiety having kept me awake for forty-eight hours straight. Playing in the background was the Sunday morning jazz show on Brisbane’s 4ZZZ.

Cops were not supposed to listen to the station. The announcers all affected to despise us, maintaining a steady outpouring of anti-establishment banter between songs. But I was willing to put up with a bit of second-hand invective for the chance to hear some decent music.

John Coltrane’s ‘Spiritual’, from his Live at the Village Vanguard record, came over the air. I had never taken an illicit substance, but surely no drug could replicate what these sounds were doing to my fog-bound mind. Lying there I experienced something of a musical epiphany – a new door to enhanced perception had suddenly opened.

And in the corner of the room sat my work bag, loaded gun nestled inside.

My first experience of a firearm actually being discharged by a police officer came only a few weeks into the job. The affair played out entirely on the police radio, an ordinarily mundane device that occasionally sparked to life with a narrative of intrigue.

I was cruising the suburbs on a languid Saturday afternoon when, on the other side of town, urgent inquiries commenced to locate a police vehicle and the constable driving it. Frantic instructions were issued, flustered replies given; though no specifics were offered, the dots eventually connected. After a tense half-hour or so came a final, resigned broadcast: the car had been located in an abandoned quarry. Then, nothing.

I never learned anything more about the anonymous comrade who used his own .357 to enable a lonely suicide. Moreover, nobody in authority would have wanted you to know anything about him. Death on duty was a revered thing, but evidently there were limits.

Later I would work alongside someone who had been called upon to discharge his revolver to save a child’s life – a rare enough circumstance, at least in those days – and from all accounts he had done so without hesitation. He came across as personable and well adjusted if slightly dotty, career flat-lining towards obscurity. Quietly dealing with whatever demons the killing of another human being had set upon him.

There was another fellow who went around boasting about shooting an armed criminal dead, though his contemporaries whispered that it was fantasy. He had gravitated to the senior ranks and was as mad as a map of Mars.

My probation year rolled on, full of incident yet somehow recollected today as largely uneventful. On duty I was supposedly one of Joh’s army, ruling Brisbane at the behest of his corrupt band of overseers. Pig city, they called it later. But at ground level things are never quite that mythical.

Down there were only cops, civilians, crooks and rats. For some reason I recall the rats most clearly. Furtive, bedraggled ones slinking by the side of the river; swaggering beasts the size of small cats standing sentinel over the newly appointed Queen Street Mall.

Sometimes, in the small hours, everyone else was home in bed and it was just us and the rats. Once a colleague announced that he was considering firing at one atop an empty restaurant table, but I managed to talk him out of it.

In 1987, at night or on a weekend, the city centre was like an abandoned movie set. The gaudy attractions of the World Expo were still twelve months away and all of the stores closed at midday on Saturday, selling nothing but shadows until Monday morning.

So over that long winter I played unwitting descendant of Dante and Johnno, traversing the streets and alleyways of a Brisbane still struggling to evolve from the city-in-waiting that Malouf chronicled in the period after the war.

Off duty, a favourite pastime was to scour the town’s independent music stores: Kent Records at one end of Elizabeth Street, Skinny’s at the other; Rocking Horse over on Adelaide Street.

Kent was the favourite. Down a wooden stairway and into the charged underbelly of a staid municipality. Hoping the staff would be too busy to look up, so sure was I that I did not fit in. Among row upon row of vinyl and a steadily expanding compact-disc section, I experienced a mild thrill that my occupation would rarely be able to match.

I scurried home to listen to new acquisitions: the Triffids, Died Pretty, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joy Division. My relative musical sophistication was largely down to reliable critics in long-since departed publications like RAM, Melody Maker and CREEM, and it clashed unequivocally with the lifestyles of the majority of my comrades.

I devoured the writings of George Orwell and Joseph Conrad and listened diligently to Miles Davis and Brian Eno. If the people I worked with read literature, they kept quiet about it, and though I knew nothing about their taste in music, almost certainly it was fucked.

One night I trailed along on a pointless drug raid upon an inner-city hovel, a once proud terrace house where the pile of ash from the fireplace tumbled out onto a dank carpet. Bored, I remarked to the young occupants that I too owned a copy of the Hüsker Dü record lying on the floor. Their mouths dropped open in unison at a cop who listened to hardcore post-punk. Eighties Brisbane was not the place for such incongruities.

A few days later I came across the same group of kids and we exchanged brief but comfortable pleasantries. A random aesthetic connection was all it took to confirm that any assumed power discrepancy between us was largely illusory, and to remind me that my uniform concealed as many parallels as it represented differences.

The year ended with an incident that came to epitomise the fug of futility slowly enveloping me. I was finishing up at a routine traffic accident in West End when the radio dispatched us to a far more ominous case just a few blocks away. Into the car, up a hill and around a corner to where the wellspring of future nightmares awaited.

Among a street of ragged weatherboard homes sat an absurdly placed cement works. An unoccupied truck had somehow rolled backwards off a raised platform, across the road and over a three-year-old boy playing on the footpath opposite.

We arrived to mayhem. The child’s mother had gathered him up in her arms and was running back and forth, wailing to some implacable god. An ambulance arrived and moments later we were escorting it to the nearby hospital amid a pandemonium of sirens.

The boy was pronounced dead upon arrival. Surely none of us, police or paramedic, expected any other outcome? It was a necessary gesture, no more – I might as well have pulled out my revolver and shot at the indifferent sky.

The following day was New Year’s Eve. A two-sentence filler buried at the rear of the morning paper referred to the child as ‘the latest addition to Queensland’s holiday road toll’. A line drawn under another tragedy, I went to ready myself for the coming late shift. And so it went.

The Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption overshadowed everything. Decades of degeneracy had created a stench that not even the state’s deeply rooted National Party could go on ignoring. High-ranking officials lined up behind swords to fall on, before any indemnities from prosecution ran dry. At the notorious Woolloongabba station, where I recently had been posted, a cohort of photographers gathered each morning at the entrance to the car park, snapping anyone going in or out.

Nonetheless, little altered down at my level. The older cops looked mostly dejected, anticipating further indignation around every corner. Some of the younger ones were openly ebullient, sensing perhaps that their time had arrived.

I remember spending a week on nightshift working alongside an ex–detective sergeant whose universe, unbeknown to me, had just fallen in on him. Restricted to desk duties and his weapon confiscated, he was much kinder than the usual cohort of drunks and dimwits given charge of the place. By 2 am most mornings, the station lights were off and we slept fitfully on cleared desktops.

Within six months, I would be on my way to becoming a detective and he would be facing a five-year stretch for perjuring himself at the Inquiry.

Fitzgerald’s report was released on 3 July 1989. My latest boss joined the queue at the government printer to obtain a copy. He needed to see if his name appeared inside. He was guilty of nothing more than drinking too much and averting his eyes from the darker pursuits of some of his contemporaries, and his future had already blundered down a one-way street to nowhere.

Soon the eighties became the nineties and everything and nothing had changed. Queensland elected a Labor government and appointed a police commissioner from interstate, shiny new buttons adorning a still-tattered coat. I transferred into the Criminal Investigation Branch, trading my .357 for a snub-nosed .38, which could be more comfortably holstered under a jacket. Or else stuffed into a back pocket, as nobody in their right mind wears a jacket in subtropical Brisbane if they can avoid it.

My musical realm came to comprise a slush of soaring, sweeping, swooning guitars: Slowdive, Sonic Youth, Ed Kuepper, My Bloody Valentine. Kent relocated to a smaller space in a more desolate part of Elizabeth Street. It was the beginning of the great decline – by decade’s end it would be gone for good and most of the interesting book and record stores in the city soon followed suit.

In their place, an infestation of insipid convenience stores and fast-food outlets that reeked of disinfectant. Brisbane’s coming of age would require that provinciality be supplanted by banality.

The years meandered by. Though I brushed up against a few perilous situations, only once did I come to be looking directly down the barrel of a firearm.

The path to that moment was a complicated one. After a long period of investigating corporate fraud and corruption it was time for me to move on, so I duly fronted the personnel officer to negotiate my fate. Blustering with the determination to help rid humanity of all its scourges, I informed him that I wanted a transfer to the threateningly titled Child Abuse and Sexual Assault Unit.

He looked me over with a combination of pity and disdain and declared that such work was not the bailiwick of real detectives. Probably thinking he was doing me a favour, he summarily shipped me off to the Drug Squad. Thus I stepped unwillingly into the midst of one of the most senseless wars in human history.

I met some nice people there, inevitably fellow minions also unimpressed by their working environment. But many of those running the show were irredeemably conservative. That half of them carried around in their top pocket a legal drug a hundred times more deadly than anything we were chasing appeared, even to my embryonic political mind, an absurd paradox.

Hauled out of bed one cold July night, we prepared to descend upon a property on the outskirts of the city. The expectation was that it concealed an amphetamine laboratory in full production mode.

One group to the front, another around the back, we crept in through an unlocked door, warrant at the ready. Skulking along a corridor, I poked my head into the main living space and found myself eyeing off a gun-barrel the size of a sideways ship’s funnel. It was pointed directly between my eyes.

Holding the weapon, a young firebrand from the other team, crouched in the gloom, trying to decide if I was someone who merited shooting. I was only a few grams of trigger-pressure away from a state funeral.

Soon enough he realised his error and directed the barrel downwards, but the psychological damage had been done. Over the coming days the moment played on my mind more than any previous flirtation with danger. Could it be that the real peril lay within?

In the middle of the room, the object of our nocturnal invasion: two befuddled miscreants huddled around a camp burner, cooking a pot of sludge that looked like coagulated motor oil but apparently qualified as a dangerous drug.

Later, as the cuffed criminals were hustled outside, a media team with camera lay in wait. The so-called story had been leaked by one or more colleagues bewitched by some illusion of stardom. Nothing about the scene was making sense to me.

I became increasingly belligerent in the face of such inanity and soon enough the hierarchy tired of me. They decided to shunt me and my mildly dissident attitudes off to where I wanted to go in the first place.

Investigating rape and child maltreatment at least gave some sense of performing a socially necessary function. And we were so overworked and understaffed that any perceived threat from within receded and life became relatively straightforward again.

Within weeks I was being bailed up by a drunken and enraged father wielding a carving knife in each hand. He exploded without warning: I was pressed up against a wall and my firearm, located now in a holster around my ankle, might as well have been on the moon for all the chance I had of accessing it.

Fortuitously, two more officers arrived; they skilfully diverted the man’s attention from thoughts of filleting me until an opportunity arose to rush him. He was pinned to the ground, arrested.

I subsequently came to feel less troubled by the idea of steel blades penetrating flesh than visions of what might have eventuated had my gun been to hand. No time to make a rational decision: just pull the trigger and step into a whole new world.

The cycle of abuse and neglect is an interminable one and it is not only the victims who become trapped within. I did my obligatory three years and then four more, until a final thread snapped somewhere inside me.

By that time I was reading the likes of Walter Benjamin and Italo Calvino and listening to disorienting drone music, tranquillising ambient metal, obscure field recordings and solo saxophone improvisations. The distance between my interior life and the day-to-day of policing had stretched so far that one was no longer connected to the other.

Was it ever otherwise? My youthful conception of policing soon proved illusory, even if the paradox of it all did not become fully apparent until much later. Eventually, I realised that my calling was for a kind of calculated abstention from society – a life of observing things from the fringes. In hindsight, dragging my teenage self out of a routine clerical job and into police training was the temporary avoidance strategy of one too young to understand that lack of ambition can be ambition enough.

I submitted resignation papers and handed in my gun, by then a Glock semi-automatic pistol. Never comfortable carrying a firearm, only lately had I come to understand why.

Every human life is acted out on a broad psychological spectrum, and over time each of us moves back and forth along this. Some deviate more radically than others, but few can claim not to have spent at least a few moments, probably longer, at the darkest end of that scale.

A gun, however, is an object whose lethality remains independent of any mental continuum. While its owner may wax and wane from one emotional state to the next, possibly without anyone around them even realising it, the gun remains exactly as it always was: easily accessible, remorselessly efficient, ever poised to send its malignant cargo out into the world.

Forever shed of this cold steel burden, I exited police headquarters for the last time. Down the stairs and into the sluggish monotony of another Brisbane summer, and freedom. The system, such as it was, had done with me for now.

The next day I drove to the beach. Stretched out under an insolent sun, I felt a weight drain far greater than that of the weapon (approximately 1.1 kilograms fully loaded) I had recently abandoned. For the first time in eighteen years, I found myself fully outside a culture that I had never been wholly inside of to begin with.

It is difficult in retrospect to say what effect those eighteen years had on me: eighteen years of pent-up pressure that would require a further decade of sunlight and Valium to even partially dissipate. Memory is a baffling thing, and life’s luminous halo is no less ineffable than when Virginia Woolf depicted it almost a century ago.

I guess child maltreatment and rape have a stomach-turning quality that crosses ideological lines, but, ultimately, an innate anti-conservatism rendered me incompatible with police work. Poverty, inequality and intolerance are ubiquitous social problems that policing tends, intentionally or otherwise, to exacerbate.

Though I don’t buy into a simplistic version of a police–other dichotomy, as someone who blanches at the very voice of a Tony Abbott or a George Pell, who sees education and the environment as better public investments than military hardware, who has internalised the Gang of Four song ‘Capital (It Fails Us Now)’ as a personal anthem, I was always going to have an equivocal relationship to law enforcement.

The police subculture probably attracts a disproportionate number of authoritarian types. In reality, though, it is for the most part populated with a cross-section of individuals pretty much like everyone else: people with hopes and fears and loves and hates; people who can be gallant in one situation and timid in another; people with a craving for power and others who make mistakes even though their hearts are in the right place.

It is the social milieu that matters most. Queensland was, in many ways, an ugly place in the 1980s. It started looking a lot uglier again circa 2012, when the first conservative government in twenty-three years took power and tried to pretend that the Fitzgerald Inquiry never happened.

For eighteen years, I did a job much like any other: one that is complicated, necessary, occasionally dangerous and intermittently rewarding. I tried to dodge political intrigues that others thrived on, winced at outmoded dogmas that some embraced, and lugged around a deadly weapon I would have preferred to be able to do without.

Today, almost three decades have passed since I was handed that first gun, a time in which all heroes were proven to be dead and all dreams of immortality shown to be myth. These days I sometimes wonder where that gun went, who took on its load after it was released from me. I only know it is still out there somewhere … it and millions like it.

I recollect, too, that seemingly insignificant moment inside the squalid bedsit with the Hüsker Dü sleeve on the floor. The album was Zen Arcade and it still sounds great, a sprawling mass of post-punk ingenuity with one song in particular – ‘Turn 0n the News’ – that flays all contenders with its radio samples, hollered vocals and guitar armageddon. It is the sound of the downtrodden hammering ceaselessly, if vainly, at the ramparts of capitalism – music that might make someone feel like burning down the world, but with modest lyrics that make you think, such as: ‘I hear it every day on the radio/Somebody shoots a guy he don’t even know.’

At least now, that somebody won’t be me.

 

My eternal gratitude to Suzie Gibson and Felicity Plunkett for their unwavering encouragement and guidance. Thanks also to Josie Thomas for her thoughtful suggestions. Dedicated to Jennine Anne Savage (1966–2001).

 

Read the rest of Overland 223

 

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Dean Biron holds a PhD from the University of New England and works as a sessional tutor in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology. He was co-winner of the 2011 Calibre Essay Prize.

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