Tag Archives: Human Nature

Good Guys, Bad Guys

Every time I think modern American craziness has peaked, and will now degrade into mere oddness and maybe eventually into normalcy, it stops and turns around and zigzags to new heights. Since the health care bill passed I’ve read about a blogger who made a name for himself calling on “modern Sons of Liberty” to go on a massive window-breaking binge, and about one of the guys who went to a rally, got fired up and angry, and worked off their energy by mocking a man with Parkinson’s disease. I’m too depressed to get angry right now. I just felt a little sad. And then I read they’d both received threats. And that made me a little sad, too.

In the last decade, Americans have openly advocated torture. Americans have openly advocated holding prisoners forever, with no charges or possibility of redress. That’s just what Americans have advocated as official government policy; poll the hoi polloi and you’ll find people willing to indiscriminately bomb entire populations into the Precambrian era if you tell them it will kill a couple terrorists. Pick any crazy idea that violates the principles the United States of America are supposed to hold, and, somewhere out there, herds of Americans are in favor of it.

People into atrocity-endorsement often justify it with the observation that, hey, the people we’re wishing this on, or even actually doing it to, are Bad Guys. Actually, a lot of the people swept up in the War on Terror were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but never mind–for the sake of argument, we’ll assume they’re all genuine terrorists. And here the pro-torture crowd is right: terrorists are monsters.

The thing is, monsters are not born monsters, the way they’re born with brown hair or third nipples. Bad Guys put themselves into the Bad Guys category by doing bad things. What the torture advocates consistently do not get is that a bad thing is a bad thing no matter who you do it to.

It’s the “No, Wait, I’m the Hero” principle. Anyone with any exposure to movies or comics or TV knows this bit. Captain Kirk and Superman and the Doctor have the villain in their clutches, at their mercy… and they pull back, because killing the bad guy would make them just as bad as he is. And the audience groans, because it’s such a cliche. But just because it’s a cliche doesn’t mean there’s nothing in it.

Good isn’t something you are. Good is something you do.

Or, sometimes, what you refrain from doing. Let’s say you’ve witnessed a horrible injustice. Let’s say you’re face to face with some people who’ve done some bad thing–like maybe intimidating supporters of the health care bill. You want to respond… so you argue rationally. You take to the streets and protest. You apply ridicule. You take the Bad Guys to court. You start a group or a nonprofit to repair the damage done by the Bad Guys, or just donate money. You vote the right people into office or run for office yourself. Sometimes, when the Bad Guys have backed you into a corner and are coming at you with bricks–I mean literally coming at you, no metaphors here–you might, in self-defense, respond with violence.

But death threats? There are no extenuating circumstances for them. Twist logic all you want, but you’ll never make a logic pretzel non-euclidean enough to serve as a justification. Threaten someone–or torture them, or throw them into a hole and forget about them–and you’ve joined the Bad Guys, and it’s time for the remnants of civilization to take a stand against you. It’s no use arguing that the guy you’re threatening is himself a bad guy. The fact that you’re fighting a Bad Guy does not automatically make you Good.

(Does this mean it’s harder to be one of the good guys than it is to be one of the bad guys? Yes, it does. Life is unfair that way.)

Understand, I’m not setting up a false equivalence here. I’m not saying “Why, you’re both as bad as each other!” I hate that crap. It’s not Democrats who have maps marked with rifle sights on their Facebook pages, and it’s not the health care supporters who brandish guns at town hall meetings and fax pictures of nooses to members of Congress. (Republicans, meanwhile, complain that by just talking openly about the threats they’ve received, Democrats are “ratcheting up the rhetoric.” Or in other words, “Stop telling people I hit you, or I’ll have to hit you harder!”) But it’s because I don’t think both sides are equivalent that I expect my side to be better.

There’s one piece of good news, one little bit of hope we can pull from this mess. If bad is something people do, not something they are… well, they can stop doing it. And, as far as I’m concerned, they can join the Good Guys again. I don’t think they even need to apologize, usually; just understand what it is they’ve done, and decide to stop.

Remember the guys who mocked the man with Parkinson’s? At least one of them really has apologized. I think he means it. I think it’s worth giving him the benefit of the doubt, anyway. I want to believe that guy’s come back to civilization. I want the people writing the online threats to come back, too.

On Feeling Stupid


In February I had an x-ray and learned that for three weeks I’d been walking around on a fractured toe. Specifically, a “linear lucency … consistent with a nondisplaced fracture.” I’m still reminded of this every time I bump it or move it the wrong way.

For a long time I didn’t notice anything wrong. I mean, obviously I knew my foot hurt. I was limping. But it took me over two weeks of limping to notice my foot had hurt long enough and badly enough to justify calling a doctor.

Drive a car long enough, and something will probably go wrong. Maybe you hear a squealing noise, not very loud at first. Without really thinking about it you drive a little bit slower. Maybe the brakes are a bit soft, and you instinctively brake a little sooner to compensate. Gradually the noise grows. Gradually you drive a little more gently, and a little more. And one day you notice, hey, you’re driving at ten miles per hour and braking half a block away from the stop sign and your car still sounds like it’s rehearsing Tosca.

We do this all the time. We thump squealing refrigerators and dishwashers and clothes dryers into silence. We put up with TV aerials that must be adjusted and readjusted with microscopic precision to pick up signals. We live with watches that stop randomly and work with computers that crash and tolerate small appliances if they start to smell funny.

You can get used to all kinds of things. You can be used to a thing for a long time, until one day it hits you that you’re too used to it, and you’ve let it go way the hell past the point that it ought to be tolerable. I was amazed, and a little alarmed, to discover I could do this with my body.

Maybe the real lesson here is that life never ceases to provide us with new things to feel stupid about. Which in some ways is better than not feeling stupid. If we never felt stupid, would we notice when we had something new to learn?