Today Andrea and I went to have lunch at our favorite Indian buffet. There was a guy hanging out in front of the H&R block next door to the restaurant, sitting on a milk crate. There’s a tendency for there to be aggressive panhandlers there, and the only available parking spot was right in front of the guy. So when I got out of the car, I walked around the back of the car because I didn’t really feel like interacting with the guy.
Maybe this sounds pretty craven, I don’t know. The guy wouldn’t be there if he had a better place to be. I don’t know why he’s there. But obviously he needs help. And at the same time, I don’t feel like I can really help him. For example, he might be there to buy drugs (we witnessed a drug buy there a little later on). I don’t know. He might just be hungry, and want some food.
Avoiding him didn’t work. He came after me, and pretty forcefully demanded to know if I wanted my windows washed. I was feeling beset, and I responded with a pretty forceful “no” while hastening away from him. Not something I’m proud of, but there it is – it was my natural reaction in the moment. I didn’t want to connect with the guy. Yes, in principle I want to help him, but in practice I wanted him to leave me the hell alone.
So now I’ve been unkind to someone who’s so much worse off than me that it scarcely bears contemplation. Why? Because I felt put-upon. Not exactly threatened, but sort of threatened. My space invaded. Lies told to me (the guy didn’t have window-washing equipment that I noticed, although I wasn’t looking that closely).
Why do I mention this here? Well, obviously I don’t feel that my behavior was constructive or appropriate. But what does that have to do with war? This.
The United States is a rich country. We have powerful weapons. Not necessarily the right weapons, but powerful weapons nonetheless. If someone comes at us, we can answer them. The force behind our answer might not be appropriate, but we can definitely answer them. In fact, because we are so rich and powerful, the force behind our answer almost has to be disproportionate. Right now we’re in trouble off the coast of Somalia because we are using cannons to swat gnats.
We see this kind of response at every level of our society. I lash out inappropriately at the homeless guy. The police lash out inappropriately at petty criminals and legitimate protestors. Corporations lash out inappropriately at people who they feel are cutting into their bottom line. The People lash out, possibly inappropriately, at financial workers. And when three thousand of our countrymen and women were killed, we lashed out inappropriately in Afghanistan, first, and later Iraq.
Were we beset by foes? Sure. Did we have a right to respond? Maybe so. Was our response constructive? Not in the slightest.
I was trying to avoid being hassled. I was hassled anyway. I feel like a jerk for what I did. Not only did I not accomplish what I hoped to accomplish by avoiding that guy who was hassling me, I made things worse – I made him feel worse, and I made myself feel worse. Was it okay for him to hassle me? No. Did my response work? No.
I think the analogy holds all the way up the spectrum, from me, to the cops, to corporations with lawyers, to the people, to our military response to 9/11. There was a stimulus, and it triggered a response. The stimulus and the response were completely disproportionate. And the outcome was not in any way satisfactory or useful.