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Carry a big stick, or speak softly?

10 August 2011

I grew up in a punishing culture, in the only Western culture where the death penalty is still legal and enforced frequently. (The U.S. is fifth globally in executions for 2010, just behind those other ignominious punishment cultures: China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen.) But I also grew up in a church that put a bit more emphasis on the Jonah and the Whale story than it did on the Prodigal Son, the one who wasted all of his dad’s money and then returned to open arms and an extravagant party.

My sister summarized it like this: “If I were that kid’s dad, I’d be like, ‘Don’t you even THINK about coming back here after what you did! Starving to death and living with pigs? Well what did you think would happen if you blew all your money?’”

I laughed out loud. She was completely right. I would do exactly the same. There’d be no adorning with robes and rings, no celebratory feast. We’d readily agree to the son’s suggestion that he become one of the hired servants and work his way back to our love.

We believe we need to show other people how wrong they are. Never mind that this is wholly at odds with the true message of Christ, one of compassion and forgiveness. Compassion and forgiveness come after punishment. After I see that you have had time to reflect on how wrong you were.

I remember an overnight flight from Detroit to Amsterdam when we were seated in front of a young American couple. They were noticeable because they seemed too young to have the money their clothes and attitudes implied. He wore a crisply ironed shirt with monogrammed cuffs that were meant to suggest refined taste but to me said, “I still live with my parents.” She flipped through British Vogue, keeping her manicured nails outstretched as though the pages might mar them. He carefully arranged all of his tech gadgets for optimal conspicuousness. She refused to put her oversized Louis Vuitton duffel into the overhead compartment and insisted it fit under the seat by shoving it into my foot space.

As boarding continued I saw a flight attendant bend down to ask them something quietly. Without ever looking up from his iPad, the man dismissed the request with an irritated, “No.” A few minutes later the scenario was repeated by another flight attendant. And then another. I stretched my ears to listen in. Apparently a family of four with two small children, one of which was an infant, had been given seats in separate areas of the plane. Would these two kindly trade their seats with the father and son so they could sit with the mother and baby? It would be easy, they could keep their aisle seat.

But it would not be easy. The Prince and Princess were seated in an isle and a center seat in the middle of the plane, but the father and his son were seated in an isle and center seat on the right-hand side of the plane, which was a row of three seats. The couple did not want someone they did not know climbing over them to use the toilet. The flight attendant turned away in disbelief, too stunned to say more.

By the time the fourth flight attendant arrived with the belief that he could calmly explain the situation and arrive at a logical solution to the problem, Richie Rich was ready to fight. He stood up and jabbed a finger in the direction of the flight attendant’s face. “We chose THESE seats on the internet. We paid to have THESE seats. If you don’t want people to choose their own seats then you shouldn’t have an online service.”

“Well, sir, sometimes we ask—-”

“I’ll file a harassment charge if you don’t leave us alone right now.”

A hush fell across those of us sitting around him, but it wasn’t a hush of awe or fear. It was stifled laughter. He truly believed that he had the right and might and power, at the age of barely twenty, to pull off an attitude he had clearly learned from TV. He actually believed that because he had money and internet access he had a right to these seats.

But it seemed that he did have that “right.” The flight attendant apologized and turned away, although not without a dramatic eye-roll to the rest of us.

Unlike the flight attendant I feared no harassment charges. I was not about to let them get away with this. I glared at the couple through the crack in the seats and wished evil on them. They had chosen to sit behind me for eight hours, and for those eight hours I would make their lives as miserable as I possibly could.

My first weapon of retaliation was to recline my seat as far back as it would go. Then I held my toddler up in the air so she could giggle and (hopefully) drool down the other side of our seat. I secretly wished that the baby in their row, the one they had chosen to sit next to, would scream for the entire flight, but I withdrew that thought because it seemed so unfair to the poor mother. When the drinks cart came by I tried my best to signal to the attendant to drop some staining cranberry juice or hot coffee down the front of the man’s shirt, but the hand signals for this proved trickier than I had envisioned.

And then, when on my way to relieve passengers of the toxic smell coming from my toddler’s diaper, the most beautiful idea in the world came to me: How astonishingly easy it would be to return with the diaper folded up, reach under my seat, unzip her Louis Vuitton bag, and stuff that little bomb inside. Where it could marinate, sealed, for eight long hours. Revenge would be mine, all mine.

I couldn’t stop smiling as the sweet smell of punishment filled the air of the tiny bathroom compartment. Then I heard a little voice that said, “Don’t stoop to their level!” It was joined by another voice that asked what the heck I would do if the young woman opened her bag in-flight, found the diaper and threw its noxious contents back at me?

I couldn’t do it. I tossed the diaper into the trash and returned to my seat. I also returned to my evil glares and hoped that karma would punish them the rest of their lives. (Passive aggressive, I know.)

After news surfaced of the blogger from the University of Bergen who spreads hatred and supports violence, I found myself in a similar dilemma, wondering how we could punish this horrible man for the filth he has written, which, though not illegal, is certainly morally reprehensible and repugnant.

Surely he cannot get away with this! I think, and, in my anger, I strategize and scheme. I envision ostracizing him, mocking him for all the flaws in his logic, begging the university to kick him out.

But these views are contrary to the wishes of every Norwegian I have spoken with. They would like to talk calmly and openly to this blogger to try to understand and help him.

“You’re kidding, right?” I ask incredulously. “Sit down for coffee with a guy who thought he would be Norway’s first terrorist? With a guy who puts killing a cop on his bucket list?” Well, yes. That is exactly what they mean.

So here I sit once again, between cultures, trying to write my way into an understanding of both. I have whittled down thirteen pages on the subject to the three you see here, but I seem to have gotten nowhere.

I’m ashamed to admit that I want to fight mean-ness with mean-ness and call it justified. But I fear, in the words of a friend, “overlooking evil to try to understand error.”

I humbly welcome comments and insight!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Debbie permalink
    10 August 2011 15:33

    Once again you have allowed me to laugh (I would have been plotting as well…) and reflect upon the nature of our differing worlds. Do we as Americans react with thoughts of violence because that is what we have been taught or exposed to through the media? Even our history reflects the priciples of military force rather than peace keeping conversations. As I think about your comments today, it occurs to me that maybe the Norwegians with whom you are speaking see the world as one that contains human beings – that are not that far removed from who they are. Living, breathing regular life people. Maybe they understand that no one gets through this life without pain and sorrow, anger and resentment, joy and compassion. For some the importance of these emotions hold different places and reactions. In my heart of hearts I wish we could live in a world where ‘doing the right thing’ is a matter of principle, and where our priorities would lean towards the use of weapons of words instead of weapons that kill.

  2. 10 August 2011 18:08

    De ja vu on the flight story, been there a few times.
    I can’t help but believe that the approach to these hate mongers makes sense. In a functioning society we need to have debate and the environment for open forums. As much as some viewpoints may disgust me and invoke feelings of incredulity and disbelief, it is only by engaging in discussion that we can learn and understand.
    Mostly our ‘world view’ is formed by the influences in our life and often reflects the environment in which we exist. Many of the radicals and extremists may spout some bile filled hatred, but sometimes, deep in the rhetoric there can be some actual valid points that we may be better off acknowledging and incorporating into the general social discussion.
    Another factor is that by ignoring their viewpoints and discarding them out of hand, it may actually feed their hate and feelings of persecution.

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