April 19, 2010

Choose Your Violence

I have never worried about violence in Mexico. Of course, I know it exists. Like everyone else, I read the newspapers, and the evidence for widespread, drug-related violence is clear enough. True, the guns for this violence are largely supplied by American arms dealers just north of the border, as President Obama himself omitted when he visited Mexico early in 2009. But leaving that inconvenient fact aside, there is no doubt that there is a lot of crime-related violence in Mexico, not only from drugs but from extortion and kidnapping and sex trafficking as well, and that it casts a long, dark shadow over Mexican life.

And yet, I never feel nervous walking the streets of, say, Mexico City. I have walked around the city at night, many times, by myself, and (call me naïve) I have never felt the need to keep looking over my shoulder. On the other hand, I find that I am typically edgy when I visit the United States, and over the last few months I began to think about why this is the case. Finally, it came to me: yes, Mexican violence is quite real, but it doesn’t seem to extend much beyond the boundaries of gang wars and criminal activity. American violence, on the other hand, is a different kind of creature. It doesn’t have the dramatic flavor of the Al Capone-style violence of the 1920s anymore. Rather, it seems to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. It often feels to me as though the entire society is violent; that random incidents could turn very ugly very fast. Which they often do, in the U.S. (a casual put-down remark leads to someone getting blown away in a drive-by shooting the next day, for example—events that are by now so common they get reported online, but not in the newspapers), and I suspect it is this that makes me nervous, because you never know what’s going to happen. The question is, which of the two types—Mexican or American—is worse?

I had occasion to confront this dilemma in the form of two incidents that occurred in the closing months of last year. In September, I was staying for a week in a part of Mexico City that has always seemed to me to be relatively safe. One evening during that time I had dinner with a friend of mine, and she subsequently dropped me off about a block from my apartment building (the street was temporarily closed to traffic, for some reason). As I walked home, I passed a young man of about twenty-two years of age, who seemed to want something. I stopped for a moment; he looked at me with rather glazed eyes and said, “Que pasó?” (what’s happening?), slurring his speech. He was obviously drunk. I turned away and kept on walking, whereupon he attacked me from behind, striking me in the head and knocking my hat off. My reaction was one I would not have anticipated: I was filled with rage. I wheeled around and advanced on him, inexplicably yelling “déjalo!” (let it go!). Of course, I should have shouted “lárgate!” (get lost!), but “déjalo!” was what came out. However, the words didn’t really matter; it was the body language that stopped him in his tracks. He was aware, as was I, that if he made one false move he was going to have a fight on his hands. We stood there for about twenty seconds, staring at each other. Finally, I felt he got the message. I turned and left; he didn’t follow me.

In the ensuing days, I puzzled over my surprising reaction to this strange encounter. For one thing, I was aware that if it had taken place in the United States, I would have reacted quite differently. Specifically, I would have been very cautious, because I expect Americans to be unpredictable and potentially volatile. (In fact, in a confrontation of this sort, the American assailant could easily have been carrying a gun.) My experience of Mexico, however, is that daily life is not permeated by the kind of free-floating anger and incipient aggression that I find characteristic of American life. Indeed, Mexican behavior in public spaces tends to be polite, if not actually gracious. Hence, when this drunken kid unexpectedly jumped me from behind, my feeling was one of outrage. If I could have put my thought process into words at that moment, it would have been something along the lines of, “How dare you attack me in my adopted country?” For clearly, he had violated my standards of expectation of public behavior in Mexico, and I wasn’t about to let him off lightly.

The second incident occurred on a flight from Mexico to Houston just after Christmas. Once again, the “attack” (not quite the right word) came from behind, but the guy in question was an American. As we took our seats on the plane, I adjusted mine so that it reclined a bit. The man in the seat behind me—white-haired, my age or a bit older (he looked a lot like Colonel Sanders of KFC)—asked me to keep my seat upright, as his legs (he told me) were right up against the back of it. I noticed, however, that he had a briefcase tucked under his calves, which were pushing his legs forward, and I was aware that this violated flight regulations (carry-ons have to be stowed in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you). However, I decided to give “the Colonel” the benefit of the doubt. He did have rather long legs, and the seat didn’t recline that much anyway. I figured I could live without the luxury of a reclinable seat for what was a relatively short flight.

At some point toward the end of the flight, I must have fallen asleep; and my seat, for some unknown reason, slid back on its own. I was rudely awakened by the guy behind me shoving my seat forward, quite violently, and pitching me into the back of the seat in front of me. “I asked you to keep your seat upright!”, he exclaimed quite vehemently, nearly shouting. I was absolutely stunned by this behavior; I hardly knew what to say. All I could think of was, “If you stored your briefcase where it belonged, there would be enough room for both of us.” Which I told him, and left it at that.

Nevertheless, I was quite angry at being treated so rudely. Is this enough?, I thought to myself. Should I report him to the flight attendant? I mean, he could have just tapped me on the shoulder, or at least checked out what had happened, before going a bit loco. Reacting violently when things don’t go your way is, after all, the behavior of a spoiled child. But in the end, I decided not to pursue it. We were almost in Houston, and I didn’t want to make a scene. It was very different from the confrontation with the drunk in Mexico City, who actually struck me. This was a tantrum, not a physical attack, and I just couldn’t see the wisdom of making a federal case out of it. I decided to write the airlines about it, and leave it at that.

As in the case of the Mexico City event, however, I was subsequently led to think about the implications of what had happened. What occurred to me was the following:

1. There appears to be a level of rage in American society simmering just below the surface, a rage that most other societies—crime and political conflict excepted—don’t seem to possess. For example, some years ago a U.S.-Canadian research team conducted a poll that asked the question, “Do you believe that the use of violence is acceptable in the pursuit of your goals?” While 12% of the Canadians surveyed answered in the affirmative, exactly twice as many, i.e. 24%, of the Americans did.

2. This level of incipient violence is probably inseparable from the ideology of “American exceptionalism,” whereby Americans believe that they are the “chosen people,” entitled to whatever they want whenever they want it. One can call it narcissism or extreme individualism, but it does seem to boil down to a kind of infantilism. This is a people who never grew up, and who will throw a tantrum if they think their “rights” are being violated. The result is aggressiveness and endless competition as a norm; they are raised in a Top Dog/Bottom Dog philosophy, one that says, “I come first and other people don’t count.” I doubt whether many Americans are free of this unconscious programming.

3. I regret that the U.S.-Canada study was not extended to Mexico, because after visiting Mexico off and on since 1979, and living here since 2006, I cannot imagine a Mexican individual behaving the way the guy on the plane did. As already noted, I experience Mexicans as being courteous or even gracious in public spaces. I can only imagine that most Mexicans would find “Colonel Sanders’” behavior grotesque. In the U.S., on the other hand, it merely falls at the far end of the social-behavioral spectrum. If nearly a quarter of the population thinks violence is acceptable in the pursuit of one’s goals, and if establishing oneself as “Top Dog” is a something of a norm, then “Colonel Sanders’” behavior may not be all that aberrant. For me, a rather unhappy conclusion to come to, and one, as I said, that makes me nervous when I am in the U.S.

So there you have it: two types of violence. South of the border, largely restricted to criminal activity. North of the border, literally part of the air that Americans breathe. Which would you choose?

©Morris Berman, 2010