Ever since I chased a pickpocket in Paris to a quickly departing train two months ago, I’ve been wondering what would’ve happened if I’d taken the final leap and confronted him onboard. He knew who I was and that I was fast on heels, so it wouldn’t have been an option to simply change my mind, stick my hands in my pockets, and waltz away whistling La Vie en Rose. And the language difference between us (and between me and my fellow passengers) would have necessitated a lot of aggressive body language for me to communicate my anger in demanding my wallet. Lovers and friends have been pretty unanimous in telling me that the best thing I did that day was letting it go.
As last week’s post probably made clear, I am not much of one for packing iron. I believe the statistics that show the most likely target of a firearm in the home is someone who lives in the home, not an intruder. I’m further moved by the wealth of stats in The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes where Harvard academic Steven Pinker shows that the chances of any of us experiencing violence in today’s world have shrunk dramatically to 3%, down from approximately 15% during the Middle Ages.
Against this comforting statistic this week, I came upon renowned atheist Sam Harris’s blog post entitled: The Truth About Violence, 3 principles of self-defense, where he announces that he’s renewed his youthful interest in self-defense, and in typically rational terms tries to share his wisdom with his fervently rational readership. Harris writes:
“In 2010, there were 403.6 violent crimes per 100,000 persons in the United States. (The good news: This is an overall decrease of 13.4 percent from the level in 2001.) Thus, the average American has a 1 in 250 chance of being robbed, assaulted, raped, or murdered each year. Actually, the chance is probably greater than this, because we know that certain crimes, such as assault and rape, are underreported.”
Stats on violence, like stats on unemployment, are immaterial if you have become the victim of either, in which case that’s the only stat that matters. Harris also demonstrates how pliable stats can be by tucking the good stat about crime being down between parentheses so he can push on with his 3 principles of self-defense, which he enumerates at length as:
Principle #1: Avoid dangerous people and dangerous places.
Principle #2: Do not defend your property.
Principle #3: Respond immediately and escape.
Needless to say, my behavior in the Parisian train tunnel went contrary to two of those principles (perhaps all three given what my Parisian friends tell me about the dangers of riding their trains). And as I said, I’ve been wondering about that behavior ever since. Was the value of my stolen wallet so great that it temporarily blocked out the value of my life? In consideration of that question, I’ve reflected back on my past brushes with danger. One in particular happened back in fifth grade. There was a new kid in town, a classic bully who went about establishing himself as the alpha male by immediately and successively beating up all the sixth grade boys who could lay any claim whatsoever to being leader of the pack. Within a week he had made his fearsome mark throughout the entire school. At the time I had the rare privilege of being named a crossing monitor, an honor normally reserved for sixth graders. One day on my beat at the corner of Alden Ave and Lincoln St., I heard a girl screaming. When I looked in the direction of the scream, I saw a girl struggling to get free of a boy pulling on her hair. The boy was the town’s new bully, and this would be our first meeting. I yelled at him to let her go.
And he did. Immediately.
And before I knew what hit me, he turned his astonishment at my foolishness into a quick, hard jab at my nuts. It was the first time I experienced that singular sensation, and I instantly collapsed to the ground in a pain like I’d never felt before.
The bully ran off; the girl ran home; and I cried my way back to the school to report the incident to the principal.
A few days later the bully returned to my corner and without saying a word, socked me again in the nuts. He turned and ran again. I pulled myself together again and went back to the principal to tell what had happened. After that the bully never came within striking distance of me.
A number of revelations arise out of that episode:
1. Whatever it was in my make-up that drove me to chase the pickpocket in Paris had been there since childhood and had little to do with the value of my wallet.
2. Again, whatever it was, it was closely tied to what I had come to perceive by nature or nurture as a wrong that I was compelled to act against.
3. Sorting nature from nurture in this matter is complicated. My dad was physically disqualified from participating in World War II so we had little military tradition in our home; he was fervently against guns in the house; and martial arts were unheard of. Yet, I often witnessed the bloody results of the fistfights he got into, as they said, whenever he got his Irish up.
4. Whatever the principal said or did to the bully was effective and filled me with a faith (sadly outdated) that one could trust authority figures to defend and protect.
That last revelation has resonated with me greatly this week during the awful pedophile scandal at Penn State. Actually years before the town bully attacked my nuts, I was molested by an usher in our town movie theater. It was the first time my father, who had taken me to the movies, allowed me to go to the second floor restroom by myself. The usher walked in, cornering me in the stall, and used his authority to impose himself on me. When he was done, I went downstairs and told my father, whose Irish went up along with every fibre of his being, but not to hunt the guy down and kill him, but to report him to the theater manager, who did not try to buy off our silence with free passes and popcorn, but called the police who arrived instantly, corralled the predator, cuffed him and led him out before my less innocent eyes.
Like the bully, I never had to deal with the predator again—no meetings with shrinks and their anatomically correct dolls to describe what happened; no hours on the witness stand in trial. I pass no judgment on the necessity for any of that; I simply say I am glad to have been spared it, and benefitted from how my run-ins with bad people were handled. As a result, I have more contempt in my heart than fear of bullies and more sadness in my heart than vengence for child predators. I’m more inclined to be a rationalist and look for comprehension of where bullies and child predators come from with an eye toward curing them than killing them.
I have no doubt that such rationality is a luxury. This week I caught an interview with Patrick MacDonald who was raped by his scoutmaster when he was 12-years old. MacDonald says the most horrific part of the entire experience was the feeling of being totally alone and abandoned:
“...the scoutmaster asked me to sleep in his tent. Didn’t the other adults on the camping trip find that odd? Why is a 40-year-old man sharing a tent with a 12-year-old boy? As I learned many years later, the other adults did find the sleeping arrangement strange. And yet, they did nothing to step in and say, “You know, perhaps that isn’t a good idea; let Pat go sleep with the other kids.” There I was, surrounded by reasonable adults, with nobody jumping in to protect me. At the time, I was sure they must have suspected something, but no one spoke up.”
It's clear that MacDonald’s incident has traumatized him so terribly much more than mine ever traumatized me. And when I ask why that is, I get only one simple answer. In my case the adults acted like adults and defended me.
And with that, The Nobby Works turns to today's birthday boy to sing us all home: