Somewhere in the human brain, probably between the occipital and temporal lobes, there must be a special receptor that, even after decades of being dulled by reality, still recognizes violence at its most embryonic stage and sends a signal to the mouth to express outrage. Mine still works.
The other night, some guy wearing my clothes shouted outrage at something that happened in the Thomas Alva Edison rest stop of the New Jersey Turnpike. It was impulsive. It was scary. But it was very satisfying - a shout against all violence everywhere, and I don't care if that sounds ridiculously grandiose. It's what I got out of it.
I was leaning against a wall inside the large fast-food emporium filled with families taking a break from holiday trips. I was waiting for my travel companions to make purchases. To my left, I heard a woman's irritated voice.
"Kristy, come here, that's not funny," she said.
About 20 feet away, a small girl - 3 years old, tops - was amusing herself by running around the stainless steel turnstile leading to the food counters. I think her parents were waiting to purchase pizza.
"Kristy!" the mother snapped again. "Kristy, come here."
The child was giggling. She seemed absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to run a bit, to maneuver around the turnstiles as if they were playground equipment. There were five people waiting for pizza, and none seemed to be annoyed by the child's antics. The girl wasn't crying or screaming. She seemed very happy.
In the next moment, the little girl did as she had been told: She stopped running and returned to her mother's side.
And her mother grabbed the little girl hard by her left wrist and gave her a vigorous slap on the rear, and then another.
That pretty much put a stop to the giggling.
"Hey!" I heard some loudmouth, wearing my clothes and leaning against the tile wall of the fast-food emporium, shout. "Don't you hit that child! ... Hey!"
The mother turned her back, then decided to acknowledge the shout.
"Why don't you mind your own business?" she snapped.
"It is my business," the guy in my clothes snapped back, loud enough so that all nearby could hear him. "You don't hit a child like that!"
The woman's husband turned from the pizza stand and looked at me - a kind of ambivalent glance rather than icy glare - and continued with his purchase. I continued to lean against the wall, startled at my own words.
For a moment, I experienced the surreal fear of sudden escalation - that, in the next moment, the husband would come over and confront me for embarrassing his wife in a crowded rest stop. I imagined a struggle, then a brawl, then gunshots, then an EMT crew and floodlights, and a shocking story on national television about how some guy with a big mouth had been shot for protesting the corporal punishment of a child in the Thomas Alva Edison rest stop of the New Jersey Turnpike.
That's how things are today.
You don't worry about embarrassing yourself, or being perceived as a meddlesome jerk. You worry about ending up dead.
But you know what? I don't care what people think anymore. Nothing good comes of hitting kids. Parents teach with their words and deeds. When they slap a child, they teach violence, and the person who does it in public is doing much more in private.
Parents think they have a right to beat children - they call it "spanking" - after they have failed as adults to correct behaviors, or when they are drunk or high, or when they are tired and angry, or when they just feel like it. Many adults think it's just fine because they either do it themselves or because they had the same experience when they were kids. And, in the great denial that marks human existence (particularly among men), they don't see the harm in it.
And let's face it: We're jaded. We're suckers for the belief that human beings will never change, that we are doomed to living with the cancer of ignorance and violence.
The streets and prisons are full of men and women who were abused as children, but that fact doesn't stop us from abiding the mistreatment of more children - either at the hands of their relatives or at the hands of a society that denies them real opportunities and a chance to rise above poverty and mediocrity.
In some ways, believing that humans will never change - or that there's nothing we can do about violence, that it's just in our nature - is comforting. It means you can live your life and keep your mouth shut. "Mind your own business!"
I say that's no way to live.
Excuse me for rambling and spouting off in the last column of 2006.
I am sick of the cycles - of addictions, violence, stupidity and failure. I am groping around for something here because the clock is ticking again toward midnight, and it has been another miserable year of violence in a nation and a culture that we love to believe is constantly evolving. And around here, we always get an extra dose of depressing news as we tally the annual homicide totals for Baltimore.
So it is frustrating. So it is depressing. So it is thus, and another year likely means more of the same.
But we can't give up. We have to do what we can do, in our own little corner of the world, while we still have time. We have to keep shouting.
Hear Dan Rodricks from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).