“I don’t think it’s out of the question that I would commit physical violence in order to defend my rightful ownership of that console,” Aunt Nina says, suddenly reverting to a kind of dead-voiced frigid calm.
“But that’s not necessary, Nina, because we have created this whole setup here just so that you can give your feelings the full expression they deserve!” Stephenson, Neal. (1999). Cryptonomicon. NY: Harper Perennial. 626)
This passage conjures a few thoughts, none of which are about the suspect nature of an inheritance (the console in question is a piece of furniture Nina’s recently deceased mother owned) as owned property. Instead this passage makes me think of violence and its nature. Nina clearly thinks violence is justified in some, particularly this, instances. Nina’s brother may also share that belief, which is why he created a system to divide the deceased’s possessions as a way to settle disputes without violence. The problem with Nina’s justifications, akin to so many treatises of violence, is their ethics exist in a vacuum. It is easy to say X deserves a violent response but that justification fails to account for other methods of conflict resolution and many times the presence or availability makes the very justification fall short.
This alternative, however, seems to be a double-edged sword. Many times people feel secure and safe because there is a system, even though the system may be seen as bankrupt or ineffective by the soon-to-be-violent. I am not talking here about a revolution, when the alternative is already and clearly indicted by the violent. I am speaking instead about other inter-personal day to day encounters. For example, a friend of a friend, I will call him Pedro, was riding his bicycle home over the bridge by the UMN law school. There were some drunk guys in front of him and these drunkards saw Pedro coming. The bike path on this bridge is narrow, with a concrete wall between it and the car lanes so Pedro had no ability to avoid the drunkards, short of postponing the trip home. One of the drunk men kept moving in front of Pedro chanting “what you gonna do?”
This drunk man clearly thought the system was protecting him, allowing him to be an asshole without consequence – after all, who will respond violently when it is clearly illegal and not worth the assault charge. Pedro asked numerous times for him to move and the man only replied with a slurred, “What you gonna do?” So Pedro punched him; he moved. Pedro rode home.
Was this justified? I contend it was. The alternative (legal system) was absent, in fact it was the potential presence of the alternative which allowed the drunk man to feel secure enough to be an asshole. Pedro was not initially violent, allowing the man opportunities to escape it. All of these circumstances leave me little hesitation in pronouncing his innocence. Would the law find him innocent? Probably not.