The grueling 16-hour flight from new York was finally over; my butt was still vibrating. My 79-year-old grandmother had made it through with surprising aplomb and energy, but she was still exhausted. We disembarked from the Aeroflot 747 and emerged into an eerie silence; the plane was the first one to land that morning, and the airport was very nearly deserted. An empty airport is a very different thing acoustically from a full one, to hear the echoes of your footsteps in an airport is deeply wrong in a way I am not sure I can explain. We descended a long, dim corridor towards the ominous-sounding Passport Control. No one spoke, and I wondered why, thinking perhaps they were too tired, too drained from the long journey. And then I saw them -- a line of about a dozen fresh-faced Soviet youth, standing at some approximation of parade rest, not looking particularly hostile or particlarly welcoming, with that blank expression that speaks volumes to those who have seen it, as some of my companions had, on a thousand borders all over the world. And each youth was holding an automatic rifle in an easy two-handed grip, very carefully not pointing it at anyone. It wasn't until after I had the thought, "Dear God, they could kill us all from that position; no one in the corridor would survive," that I realised they were in uniform. That was the moment when I realised how lucky I was, how safe my world had been to have never seen this before.3pm, Friday 5 November 2004, 12th Street BART Station, Oakland, California, USA.
The group of policemen were gossiping loudly, in that hail-fellow-well-met sort of way that tells you that they've never been told to keep their voices down in their lives. They were standing to one side of the entrance to the station; there were six of them. Two armed in the way one is used to seeing transit cops -- flashlight on one belt hook, automatic pistol on the other side. The other four -- how can I describe them? I don't know guns well enough to tell you a maker or model, but I know these were fully-automatic rifles, the next thing to a personal machine gun. One of them adjusted his rifle on its strap, and though the muzzle never pointed at me, I found myself abruptly imagining what it would feel like to look down the barrel of it. I had seen the individual men in fatigues carrying these things at airports since 9/11, of course. But they tended to travel singly, or in pairs at most. Seeing four of them together, with their weapons casually slung, as if it were nothing that they could simply pull a little piece of metal and hold it down and everyone in this bustling plaza would either take a bullet or run screaming for their lives. And I knew in my head that I should be grateful that these were familiar American good-ol'-boys rather than silent, unreadable, unmistakably Slavic young men. But that didn't stop my heart from breaking.