Smile Politely

Throwing Rocks at an Aspiring Pacifist

One of the things I like about living in Champaign-Urbana is that you almost never have to contend with random, out-of-control, angry teenagers who throw rocks at your van while you drive the family home from a little league game.

And yet, it was bound to happen sooner or later.

My wife was driving us home from a game last week with the van window open. She felt a sudden sharp pain of something thrown into her leg, which she naturally assumed was the first volley of some kind of tantrum in the backseat. She yelled “Ouch!” then pulled the van over and glared into the backseat. While she found nothing amiss there, she did notice someone about a half-block down throwing stuff at us.

I was confused about what was happening, and she told me she got hit in the leg, and thought someone threw a rock at her. Since these aren’t words she normally uses on a casual drive home, it took a few moments to register. While she was trying to figure out what to do about it, the gears finally clunked into place in my brain, and I got out of the van to…do something. Confront him? Find out what the problem was? Act on some hidden primordial impulse to protect the wife and children?

I’m not sure, but I stepped behind the van and found that he was youngish, probably in his mid-teens, but big enough to be able to cause some trouble. Mostly, he was really, really angry about something. I yelled out, asking him what his problem was. It was probably more of a rhetorical question at that point, and not done in a tone that invited much heartfelt conversation.

In reply to my question, he upgraded from rocks and found half a brick to heave down the street at me, smashing it to bits a few feet from the van. He also yelled something about my mother. I thought that was unfair, since, as far as I know, he doesn’t even know my mom.

Sensing that there was nothing to be gained by further engagement with this guy, I got back in the van and relayed my verdict to everyone that he was crazy and angry and threatening and that we needed to get out of there. Thus, within a span of 30 seconds, I managed to act on both primordial impulses, this time choosing to fly, after judging that fighting or understanding would not yield any desired outcome.

Nearing home, we realized that an angry teenager throwing rocks at random cars was probably a public safety hazard, and the responsible thing to do would be to call the police. So we did.

So, in the end, it wasn’t that big a deal. Teenager throws rocks, yells. My wife gets a bruise. I call the police. Who knows what happens after that. The only known casualty of the incident was my long-held desire to be a good pacifist.

My instincts were good at first. When confronted with a situation where I could either engage in violence to escalate a situation, or leave and deescalate it, I rightly decided to simply leave. However, I’m troubled by my decision to call the police, and let them entirely handle it, thus washing my hands of the whole thing.

After all, pacifism is not about calling daddy when your brother does something mean to you. It is about having the courage to act nonviolently when some kind of brokenness needs to be put back into balance. While calling the police is not itself an act of violence, it is nonetheless a threat to bring violence legally against someone if they continue to act like an idiot. It’s meta-violence. It is also a different kind of escalation, or could easily become one.

The institution of policing is a strange thing. The fact that we need police at all recognizes an inevitable brokenness in social relations. By default, if police are needed to resolve a situation, some kind of a social failure has happened. Therefore, calling the police should represent failure and it should feel like failure. It should not feel like the end of my involvement in some hassle on the way home from a baseball game.

So, what should have I done instead? Good question. That’s where my pacifism fails me, or I fail my pacifism. What pacifism tries to accomplish is prevention of a social failure or injustice. It is most expressly not the act of threatening someone with state violence for their misbehavior.

Maybe I should have dropped my family off at home, and gone back to the scene to see if there was something I could do to calm him down. Maybe I should have called the police, but followed up with them in some way. Maybe there isn’t really anything to do in this situation but recognize it as a social breakdown but then do what I can in the future to nurture a social environment where people are less randomly crazy.

Logically and civically, I did the right the thing. Another car may have passed by this kid and allowed him to put a dent in someone’s head, crash the car, or even kill someone. It is only by the unreasonable values of pacifists that I should have done more.

And yet, I still aspire to be unreasonable.

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