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26 March 2003 (Wednesday): politics: barfight

What do you do when you're attacked by terrorists?

You're in a crowded bar, laughing loudly, the center of attention, when suddenly a beer bottle sails through the air and shatters against the wall behind you, glass shards slashing into your face, your head, your chest. What do you do?

Some would have you believe that you should do nothing. Just get a bar towel and dab at the blood. If anything, apologize to no one in particular, announce that yeah, you guess you had it coming, that you sort of deserved it. You have pissed off a lot of people in your time; it shouldn't be surprising that a reprisal was on its way. Point taken. Sorry.

Some would have you believe that you should freak out. Run home and take the gun out of your closet drawer, start carrying it with you everywhere. You have a good idea who might have done this; you go over to their houses and rough them up a bit, tip over a few bookshelves to get your point across. Let them know you don't take shit like this. Lay off me, man, I didn't have anything to do with it, some of them say. The fuck you didn't, you say. You better watch your back.

(The prime suspects, incidentally, are known to hit their wives. You go to these women and tell them that you're going to beat their husbands to a bloody pulp, that they might as well check into a shelter now, you have a number they can call. You assume that she'd want to leave her man, given the way he treats her. But when she looks at you, it's with an expression of fear and disgust, though maybe you're not paying enough attention to notice. You're not the savior she had in mind. She's not sure if you're any better than he is.)

Some would say that you should call the police. Go through the legal channels, get an arrest and conviction for violent assault. Though it's possible that the cops, through incompetence or corruption or sheer lack of interest, won't investigate thoroughly, and eventually the case will lie abandoned and unsolved. Then what? Hire a lawyer and a private investigator? Hang out at the bar with a hidden camera and wait for another bottle to hit?

The proper course of action is probably some combination of the three: swift use of power, introspection, respect for the code of law. Above all, there's a need for a sense of maturity. Justice, not vengeance. Balance, not control. A sense of compassion for those caught in the crossfire. Don't become the very thing you fear.

But what does that mean, in concrete terms? What should we do, and what should we have done?

Was it right for the U.S. to invade Afghanistan? The wound of the World Trade Center was still fresh; the collective conscience cried for a decisive response. The enemy was hiding there, sheltered by a regime that bound its people to a starved existence. There were food drops that followed the bombs. Some of them fell on houses and crushed roofs, injured people. Was that clumsy gesture of goodwill enough? Whenever there is violence between nations there are always, always innocent victims. Is that sufficient reason to eschew military action?

Is pre-emptive striking a legitimate form of self-defense? How much proof of intent do you need before you make your move? Saddam Hussein has violated cease-fire terms, blocked or hindered weapons inspections, played hardball every chance he's gotten. Does that make him an active threat to American security? Does that make him markedly different from other dictators around the world? Will the U.S. reduce the threat of terrorism by removing him from power, or augment it?

I used to think I knew the answers to these questions, but I don't. Most troubling to me is my growing belief that peace is not possible. We're in a crowded bar with a lot of strong personalities. The place is full of grudges, backstabbings, jealousies, unpaid debts. There's no safety to be found here.

posted by enjelani @ 05:34 PM PST

Replies: 5 comments

I don't know the answer either.

But to try and respond to your allegory, I'd have to gain a better understanding of who "I" am, because the me who is to respond is not the *control* in this experiment.

Am I a regular at the pub? Do I come in sometimes and seem happy and helpful to those in need at times and then proceed to get ugly and self-serving, even threatening, when drunk? Did I beat up the scrawny guy at the end of the bar at one time, sending him off to the hospital, just because he stole a dollar bill I had placed on the bar? Do I show up flashing my fancy clothes, waving money in the air, yelling loudly enough for everyone to hear that I'm the most evolved mutherfucker on the block? Worse yet, do I tell them that if they don't try to be like me that they're worthless? Or, using more pleasing words, do I condescend them, tell them that they're smart enough, they just need new fathers?

Here's what I believe: It's wrong to use up the valuable resources of the local police as a distraction when all along, I've decided I'm going to take the guy out. I believe I should be more respectful of those around me who are there to drink and hang out, even though, yes, occasionally bottles fly. If I act decently, maybe they wouldn't be so inclined to act violently. This isn't to excuse the violent punks who hang out at the pub. But at least you're not inciting them with self-serving words and behavior. And if you're cool and restrained, when serious shit happens, you're seen as more honorable in such actions. If most of the patrons can recognize that there's a punk in the bar, if we keep our eye on him, we'll be ready for any real trouble.

And more specifically, what was wrong with giving the inspections 6 months, after which time, we could attack in the fall when the weather cooperates? We could rally support and make a case, because, as we all saw, diplomacy takes time.

posted by jim @ 26 03 2003 08:38 PM PST

Wait, I've got more...

If the bar is located in a poor, black section of Oakland, and I walk in wearing a three-piece suit and tell everyone that I'm now in charge of your bar and things are going to change according to my rules, should I be surprised if a bottle comes flying at my head?

Even more, and this is key, if the bottle missed me (or even hit me) and I threw one back, should I expect everyone else in the bar to come rally to my side?

What do I do now, stuck in a bar in a world that's strange to me, with all the patrons staring at me suspiciously and some getting violent? What if I had just left my normal bar in my white neighborhood before coming here, shortly after I told all my longtime friends there to go to hell? Should I now call them on my cell phone to come and help me? Would they come?

posted by jim @ 26 03 2003 08:51 PM PST

Very well said, Enjelani. For once, I haven't much to add. Just one thing, perhaps: The attack didn't happen in a bar, but on a public street. I think this makes some of Jim's arguments less persuasive. Yes, I was wearing a three-piece suit and no head scarf, and some people find this offensive, and I don't hold those people in very high regard and I don't make a secret of it. But I don't walk uninvited into their bars. In fact, they have bouncers at the door that won't let me. Middle Eastern dictatorships are very closed societies. They don't seek contact with the West, and we don't generally seek contact with them except for trading oil, which they are as eager to sell as we are to buy.

I think that universal love is not possible in the world, but I think peace is possible. If we can convince the thug to leave us alone, and then have the wisdom to leave him alone (even as he continues to beat his wife), there'll be peace. Not the happiest and most secure kind of peace, unfortunately. But the only kind one can make with a thug.

posted by beefeater @ 27 03 2003 11:13 AM PST

do closets have drawers?

posted by Liz @ 27 03 2003 04:28 PM PST

very appropriate analogy, and interesting additions.

i would only add that the suspects have been working on building a nuke in their garage (and may have already bought another off the black market), *and* they don't care if they live or die as long as they take the whole town with them.

(btw, PBS just aired Frederick Wisemen's Domestic Violence last week on the east coast).

posted by paul @ 03 04 2003 06:44 PM PST