Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Using Common Sense and Kindness

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Showing kindness during the 1995 Kobe Earthquake

Showing kindness in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake

My blog, like my life, doesn’t always travel in a straight line.

I started to write about my recent trip to Africa. But then I read a column by Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post about movie theater security people evicting a disabled man from the theater in Frederick Maryland—an action that resulted in the man’s death.  This event happened in the greater  Washington DC area, but it could have occurred anywhere.

That tragedy—over a ten-dollar movie ticket—was just one one of several events in the past month where unnecessary force resulted in death.  During this Easter Sunday—the most important Christian holiday—I’m wondering about what seems like a shift in our society towards such violence.

According to current United Nations data, the gun murder rate in the United States is 20 times the average for all other countries in the world.

These tragedies—whether using violence on a disabled man for a trivial issue, shooting and killing a neighborhood teenage that drunkenly wanders into the wrong house or the far too familiar mass killings of school children—leave me wondering how we got to this point.  Why is there an increased use of force when problems are encountered? Why do we seem to think it okay to “stand your ground,” shoot first and talk later?

Our films, television, music and especially our games are saturated with violence.  Much of it is delivered without consequence—someone gets shot and the shooter just walks away.  Has this glut of graphic imagery and action contributed to making us a more violent culture?

Are we training a generation to be so overworked and overstressed that they don’t think their actions through, “using common sense” as my father use to say? Did that movie theater clerk fear that he or she would be fired for allowing a handicapped person to stay on for a second sitting?  Did he or she think through the consequences of calling security?

More disturbingly the security team—all of them off-duty sheriff deputies—showed a similar lack of common sense. Could they not assess the situation and realize this was a disabled man who was not acting logically?  Why did they need to move immediately to physical force?

I’m no pacifist and no stranger to conflict. I know that force is sometimes required. I come from a military family. My father served for 35 years in WW II, Korea and Vietnam. My husband’s father was a career military office, a Green Beret who served in Korea and Vietnam. My brother served in the first Gulf War and my niece served in Bosnia. I have looked down a barrel of a gun three times in my life–once when a gas station where I worked and got robbed and twice when rogue soldiers arrested me in Africa. There is nothing more life altering than looking down a barrel of a loaded AK-47.  It makes you aware of just how final the use of force can be.

But for my father, or my father in law, both combat veterans, force was always the position of last resort.  Today as a nation, we seem to forget that lesson. There is a fierce determination among many to be armed with weapons that would have astounded the Second Amendment authors with their power.  Yet the determination to educate our children—and adults—away from violence and force seems far less fierce in our culture.

Workmen moving goods at the Port of Rotterdam

Workmen moving goods at the Port of Rotterdam

You can find other ways of coping with stressful situations. Years ago, I photographed a story on the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.  I spent time with the Port security force. I was surprised that the guards had no weapons. I asked one guard what he would do if he caught someone stealing cargo.  “We would try to arrest them,” he replied, “but is it really worth taking the life of a person over stolen goods? A life can never be replaced, but the property can.” I’m not sure how much of that I could live by but it’s a useful perspective to think about the role of force in our country.

Thousands found shelter in public schools after the Kobe Earthquake.

Thousands found shelter in public schools after the Kobe Earthquake.

A few years after Rotterdam I covered the 1995 Kobe Earthquake in Japan. Over 5500 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Many found shelter in large school gymnasiums, sleeping side by side next to strangers. Yet the Japanese persevered, knowing they were all in it together and also that whatever was left of their homes would not be vandalized. I saw jewelry stores with rings still displayed in broken windows and liquor stores that placed all their bottles on the street, ringed with yellow police tape. As far as I know, nothing was stolen.  Theft was unthinkable.

For the survivors of the Kobe quake a bowl of soup may have been their only hot meal each day.

For the survivors of the Kobe quake a bowl of soup may have been their only hot meal each day.

But what I remember most from that earthquake was a situation similar in some ways to the theater in Frederick, but with a very different outcome.  A food truck arrived at one of the shelters. People lined up.  Everyone was hungry and on edge.  When the kettle of hot soup arrived, an older man began yelling and pushing to the front of the line. Not speaking Japanese I had no idea what he was saying, but I could see everyone around him becoming alarmed and agitated. Then a shelter worker came up to the man. He spoke softly to him, not raising his voice. The worker hugged the older man, keeping his arms around him and calming him down. Finally the shelter worker walked him to the front of the line and gave him soup. I could feel the tension in the shelter fade away. Although it seemed like the episode lasted a long time, it was probably over in two minutes.

That simple act of kindness affected everyone, including me. The shelter worker recognized that anger from one man could infect a whole crowd. He had the training and common sense to properly defuse it. With the young man in the movie theater, if the security officers had taken the time to find his caregiver and talk, they would have learned that he didn’t like to be touched and might have altered their response.

Common sense can be found closer to home. In Dvorak’s column, she mentions another security guard who responded to a mentally ill woman at a CVS. The woman had eaten food for which she had no money and was yelling loudly about it in the checkout line. Unlike those officers in the movie theater, this security officer diffused the potential violence by speaking calmly to the woman and leading her outside. She made the decision that the well-being and security of the other customers was more important than the few dollars worth of food the woman had eaten.

Isn’t the safety and well being of individuals more important than the price of food—or a movie ticket? That seems like common sense.

Written by kasmauski

April 2, 2013 at 7:57 pm

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