The victim

I had lunch with someone today, who was recently strong-armed out of her wallet and phone by a small troupe of skinny junior-high thug wannabees.  Fortunately she got her items back, after the police found her assailants hanging out in the parking lot of a nearby fast-food restaurant a few hours later.

Now, I’m going to abstract away from my feelings about criminals who commit a violent crime at a street corner in the middle of the day in front of a dozen nearby witnesses then proceed to stand around in a parking lot a few blocks away.  Obviously, those are some pretty damned stupid criminals.  Even my cat had sense enough to make herself scarce after she broke something.  There’s a lot to be said about the diminishing quality of criminality in our communities, and how a school that can’t prevent students from committing crimes needs to at least teach them well enough that they commit their crimes intelligently.  But, that discussion is for another day.

My friend got her possessions back (the kids didn’t even have the sense to spend her money on the burgers they were eating when the police picked them up), and so it’s easy to think of this story as being over, with a happy ending.  No harm done, right?

Except, no.  She’s pretty shaken.  She got robbed, after all, and pushed around by a group of thieves.  Even though (or maybe even because) it happened in a public place on a bright clear afternoon in an okay part of the city, she is now afraid to go near that area.  Really, though, there’s little she can do to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, because it was so unpredictable.  She hadn’t thoughtlessly made herself vulnerable, and nothing about her environment or circumstances gave her any meaningful reason to be wary.  As a petite Asian woman she could potentially have been a more likely victim, but nothing short of very aggressive surgery is going to change that.  So, knowing that this crime was essentially random, she has nothing specifically to be afraid of, and as a result she feels afraid of everything.  Violent crime can apparently happen anywhere, without warning.  That is an awfully scary thing to realise, and I can absolutely see how it would seriously change how she feels about her own safety and happiness.

Now, this is where I take an uncharacteristic dip into my own personal details (even though I’ve written recently how I don’t much like to do that): I have personally been the victim of several violent crimes.  More specifically, I am one of probably not too many people who have had the rather boggling misfortune of being stabbed twice, on two separate, completely unrelated occasions.  Years apart.  Different cities.  Really, what were the odds?  At this point, statistically, I should be able to leap naked into a dumpster full of broken glass and scissor halves, and emerge completely unscathed.

(And, yes, I am actually aware that mathematical odds do not work that way.  I’ve read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.)

Once, I was robbed at knifepoint while I worked the evening shift alone at a video game store, and one of the robbers got a little enthusiastic.  I was totally fine, but I bled like… a… very bleedy thing…  At any rate, we were still finding patches of sales-clerk juice in forgotten corners and under furniture six months later.  The second time was years after, in another country entirely, when a crazy homeless person jumped on my back and prodded me repeatedly with a hypodermic needle after my group stopped his friend from bothering someone outside of a club.  On the plus side, I didn’t bleed much at all, comparatively speaking.

Now, I’m going to make an unexpected statement at this point: I was lucky.  I wasn’t lucky about the whole repeat-stabbing thing; that was, indeed, not very fortunate at all.  But, for whatever reason (and it might well be ignorance or even outright stupidity), I don’t carry any emotional burdens from those events.  I was actually at work two days after being knifed, feeling generally fine and not too concerned about the experience.  One can’t help but suspect repression or a defense mechanism there; since then I’ve been waiting expectantly to walk into a video game store, shriek like a little girl, and faint in a pool of my own urine, as the emotional damage finally catches up with me.  But, nothing yet, and no sign of it coming.  The “dirty needle pokey-pokey” episode certainly left me off kilter for a month or two (and waiting on infection test results is never fun), but in the end the biggest damage was that my emotional wussiness completely turned off a girl that I was into at the time.  I’m actually pretty peeved about that in hindsight, because she was really something, but I probably didn’t have  a chance anyway.

So, what was my point in discussing all of that, aside from giving myself the rare opportunity to use the term “sales-clerk juice” gracefully?  Mostly, I’m grubbing for the credibility that allows a victim of repeated violent crimes to discuss how being a victim can make a person feel.  My experiences have generally been very different from how my recently-robbed friend feels, in that I was generally unintimidated by the violence itself, while she remains deeply afraid.  And, in absolutely no sense am I implying any criticism of her at all for how she feels.  I believe quite firmly that no-one can tell other people when they should or should not feel afraid.  Emotions are unpredictable and fundamentally unaccountable.

I do, however, recognize the difference in how we see what happened to us.  I was the victim of a crime (well, several crimes) — a specific event, that happened once and was done with.  She was, and remains, the victim of crime — an encompassing, unpredictable, thoroughly malevolent activity that exists in all societies and preys on the weak.  Those wannabe-thugs who didn’t even have the sense to hang out behind the fast-food restaurant?  They were just one example of crime, one part of a much more dangerous, much bigger machine.  I doubt Crime is even proud of them, after they took a woman’s wallet and then spent their own money on hamburgers.  My friend will never see those kids again, but it doesn’t matter because more of them are out there.

The difference, I suppose, is all in what one is afraid of.  Franklin Roosevelt famously recognised this distinction when he tried to lure his nation out of the shadow of the Great Depression in 1933:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Now, obviously we do indeed have more things to fear than fear itself, or people wouldn’t be robbed or stabbed.  But, FDR’s point about the distinction between fearing something and fearing anything is nonetheless well put.  Nameless, illogical fear is a terrible thing.  My friend knows perfectly well that nothing about where she was robbed had anything at all to do with how likely she was to be robbed there (the apparent presence of the robbers aside, obviously), but she is still terrified of that entire neighbourhood.  She cheerfully acknowledges how unreasonable that fear is, and yet, there it is.  Conversely, the crimes to which I was a victim are done and over with, so I tend to pay them little attention.  I’ll never be in the exact same situations again, so what is there to worry about?

And, really, we’re both wrong, at least insofar as an emotional state can be judged at all.  As much as she needs not to imagine threats, I need not to ignore them.  There is a healthy, happy medium to victimhood (although those are so not the right words to describe it), and we would both benefit from being closer to it.

She needs to function, and there is an extent to which she can’t.  Fortunately, good therapy will probably get her through this, but until it does there are things that she just cannot allow herself to do, because she is afraid.  I, on the other hand, managed to take a potentially life-changing experience (several of them, in fact) and get almost nothing from it.  The thin silver lining on being stabbed is, or at least could be, some introspection and perhaps an appreciation for things that might otherwise have remained unappreciated.  Logically, I know that I could have died, twice.  But, it really never sunk in, as much as I know it must be true.

These responses to crime, to being victimised, raise a parallel, I think, with how people deal with fear in general.  It’s very hard to find that “healthy” balance of remembering the lesson and still looking forward.  And, I don’t mean hard in the sense of difficulty, although there is that, too; I mean it in terms of effort, and emotional energy.  It’s easy to blow fear out of proportion, because the more threatening the thing you fear is, the more legitimate the fear that you do (and should) feel is.  Threat justifies fear, so if you are afraid, it’s very validating if the threat is huge.  On the other hand, acting as though something never happened, or could never happen, is an easy way convince yourself that there’s no reason to be afraid.  But, sometimes a little fear is good, and there are plenty of things worth being afraid of.  Stabbings, for example.  Very unpleasant, stabbings.

Society, as a whole, doesn’t deal well with victimhood.  In general, people do not fear terrorists, economic collapse, cancer, youth violence; they simply fear.  Or, they never fear at all; bad things are unpredictable, and worrying about them is therefore pointless.  Smoking doesn’t give every smoker cancer, therefore we shouldn’t worry about it, because it’s random.

But, somewhere between fearing everything and fearing nothing, is the stuff that we really should be paying attention to.  Otherwise, the things that deserve fear, the lessons that we really should have learned, slip by almost unnoticed.  Modern society tends to spend so much time afraid of or indifferent to victimisation that it doesn’t even notice how it has been repeatedly victimised.  Always looking backwards is exactly what makes us crash into things in front of us, that we really should have seen coming.  Sometimes we’re lucky if we even notice that we hit something.  I doubt this is a recent trend; I suspect it’s a part of human nature.  But, this is nonetheless something that we need to be aware of, because it makes us vulnerable.  Too often, fear is what keeps us from noticing the genuinely scary things.

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