In light of the Joe Horn incident, Richard Starr pointed me to an amazing essay published almost 15 years ago in The Public Interest. When people talk about “red meat,” I think this is what they have in mind: it is provocative from start to finish.

The advice not to resist a criminal assault and simply hand over the goods is founded on the notion that one’s life is of incalculable value, and that no amount of property is worth it. Put aside, for a moment, the outrageousness of the suggestion that a criminal who proffers lethal violence should be treated as if he has instituted a new social contract: “I will not hurt or kill you if you give me what I want.” For years, feminists have labored to educate people that rape is not about sex, but about domination, degradation, and control. Evidently, someone needs to inform the law enforcement establishment and the media that kidnapping, robbery, carjacking, and assault are not about property.

Crime is not only a complete disavowal of the social contract, but also a commandeering of the victim’s person and liberty. If the individual’s dignity lies in the fact that he is a moral agent engaging in actions of his own will, in free exchange with others, then crime always violates the victim’s dignity. It is, in fact, an act of enslavement. Your wallet, your purse, or your car may not be worth your life, but your dignity is; and if it is not worth fighting for, it can hardly be said to exist.

Despite myself, I find this has a lot of resonance for me. Last night, I heard about the Horn incident in the gym. All of the men in the locker room gathered around the television, some of them mid-shave, and as I heard the details I couldn’t help but think, despite every fact of my upbringing, that Horn did the right and decent thing: he just couldn’t let them get away with it. Now, I can see how a Kantian could tear me to shreds, and I suppose I haven’t thought about this very rigorously. But that was my gut instinct. One of my favorite movie scenes was in Romper Stomper. After a neo-Nazi gang attacks a couple of Vietnamese guys, a massive number of Vietnamese restaurant workers rally and chase after the goons. They chase and chase, armed with cleavers and whooping war cries at the top of their lungs. The first time I saw this I was utterly riveted. The gang figured they could pick off a couple of these guys and face no consequences, and perhaps that would’ve been true had the young men accepted their fate. Instead they took direct retaliatory action.

I’ve been mugged twice. The first time I was in a chokehold. The young man had a knife, and I let him get away with my $11 and Granta 65 (The London Issue). The second time a friend and I faced off against four kids with guns. I made a run for it, my friend tried to fight them, unarmed, and he wound up with a massive welt across his head where he was pistol-whipped. (He was heading to Yale Law School the next day, where I’m pretty sure he was one of the few people who’d offer any kind of resistance in that set of circumstances.) I had a deep cut along my side, as I fell halfway down a hill and tried to kick away my assailants. Not smart. But afterwards my friend said something to the effect of, “You know, I think we handled ourselves okay.” Intellectually I knew this was crazy, but I basically agreed. Yes, we could’ve been shot. But I hope those kids, all of whom could have been perfectly bright, realized that $15 each wasn’t worth that split-second of stress. Suffice to say, we weren’t “the wrong guys” to mug. We were no Joe Horns. Nevertheless, we may have reminded them that
legitimate work, while less glamorous, might be the better way to go.