Thursday, June 22, 2006

Late-night cliffhanger: Denouement

She was a neighbor, from an apartment building across the street.

She lives alone, and she had been lying in bed nearly asleep when she heard her back door open, and heavy footsteps on the floor. She didn't have time to reach for her glasses, but she squinted at her doorframe just as a large figure walked down her hall, past her bedroom. She called out "hello?" and didn't get a response. She instantly started to panic; her door had been locked, nobody else had a key, what the hell was somebody doing in her apartment at midnight?

So she bolted. She ran from her room, picked up a heavy object to defend herself (candleholder) and sprinted into the street, where she saw the bright light above my door and instinctually ran for it.

But what if I had been no better? What if it was "out of the frying pan and into the fire?" When I opened my door, we were facing each other at the bottom of a narrow, steep stairway, and I was taller and larger than her.

She looked like she needed to sit down, so I offered her a chair in the front room. I purposefully moved calmly and left my front door open, so she didn't feel trapped in the apartment with me. We called the cops, they came and checked her apartment. A friend of hers - who had a key to check on her plants if she was gone - had come in to crash for the evening, not realizing she was home. No harm, no foul, the cops talked to them both and got it straightened out.

But what about her perception of danger, and her trust in me based on a front door light? It made me think of a report on the local public radio about crime on campus (at a university of 15,000). They had interviews with female dorm residents, who described walking home late at night with keys in hand and cell phone dialed to 9-1. But there have only been a couple - like two or three - random attacks on campus in that situation. Almost all of the violent crime on campus happens between people who know each other, in dorm rooms or similar scenarios. Same thing with "rape myths" - most rapes occur between people who know each other, not in a dark alleyway with a stranger. But which scenario, which attack, do people prepare for?

And what about me? I never really think of "street crime." I left my light on simply to avoid fumbling with my keys.

I live in a town of about 30,000 and bike thefts usually happen in rashes, when some wayward urban youth bring up a van from a nearby big city and steal 100 bikes in one weekend then return and sell 'em. I know quite a few people who leave their cars and homes unlocked. But I've seen quite a few barfights here, and I know of at least one horrific murder in this town.

My wish is - aside from providing a narrative to be parodied - just to provoke your own thoughts on the perception of crime and danger versus the reality.


Mandingo said...

For me, a heightened sense of danger is usual irrational. I actually enjoy riding my bike (an expensive one) listening to my iPod (again, $) down Bloomington Ave. I never feel threatened, even though I'm a prime target.
However, after being held up at gunpoint in Belize I've begun to rethink my reality (which, by nature is relative). After the robbery, I'm much more aware of my surroundings--but still not beyond the ordinary.

A Green Cowboy said...

You're more aware of your surroundings - have you changed your behavior (despite the ostentatious bike and ipod)?

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

Minus any real brush with crime, I tend to be fairly aware of my surroundings, maybe as Mandingo would maintain, irrationally so.

PiedPiper said...

Prior to my well-publicized alleyway mugging, I had the same sort of rationalization that Mandingo described. Anytime I perceived that sort of "irrational" fear - say, of a dark alley, or more specifically, of "thuggish" looking individuals - I attempted to then reclaim my rationality. By telling myself, "It's just an alleyway," or "It's just a guy hanging out," I could typically convince myself that I indeed had nothing to fear.

But a gun to the back of the head changes your reality. For at least a month after the attack, I couldn't walk down the street - day or night - without constantly looking over my shoulder and viewing every stranger - or should I say "strange-looking" person - with suspicion. This feeling gradually receded, but a strong instinctual distrust - a distrust I never realized I could feel, nor do I want to feel - remains.

For example, back in my smoking days last fall, MK and I were sitting on the stoop in front of our building. It was about 8:30, 9:00 p.m. A guy started walking toward us, and his buddy was across the street. He was carrying a skateboard, but wasn't a teenager. He looked tough and was slightly drunk. MK didn't really even seem to notice anything. My heart, however, was beating out of my chest and my hands were trembling. Beyond all my mental control, my brain had declared this person an imminent threat and had triggered my flight-or-fight response. I honestly believed he was going to attack us with his skateboard.

As it turns out, of course, he was only out to bum a cigarette and move on to the next bar.

So, was this fear rational or irrational?

In Criminal Law, we talk a lot about the level one's personal experiences should matter when determining culpability in a crime. To take my example further, what if - perceiving that man as I did - I had taken out a pocket knife and stabbed him. He subsequently died. Am I guilty of murder? Or am I guilty of a conditioned response based on my prior experiences?

Ilya said...

Cowboy's denouement focuses on the reaction of a woman, living alone, who began to feel that her life was in jeopardy due to mysterious noises coming from her apartment late at night. On one level, it reflects how all of us react to what is unknown and unfamiliar in ways that seem irrational in hindsight. She probably feels a little silly for not remembering that her friend had the key to her apartment. At a deeper level, however, the story reflects a day in the life of most women, who feel insecure when they are alone, be it at home or out in pubic. Women react much differently than men to strange or aggressive noises, and rightly so. Our world is such that women feel more danger than men when alone, unaccompanied by others. It is just a fact that the world is unsafe for those who lack the means to defend themselves, and thus are dependent upon the goodwill of others.

Mandingo said...

Pleae, Pied, don't bring "Criminal Law" into this. I started blacking out the moment I read that.
Oh, and by irrational, I mean that crime is pretty rare, even in the Twin Cities. Thus, a distrust of "thuggish looking" individuals is generally irrational because 9.9 times out of 10 nothing will come of a passing down the street. And, my "thuggish individual" is definitely different than say Xtra's "thuggish individual".

PiedPiper said...

I agree wholeheartedly that passing a "thuggish individual" 9.9 times out of 10, especially in the Twin Cities, will result in nothing whatsoever. Yet, when one goes through an experience - or when one hears of a friend going through an experience, or hears about an experience someone else had in the news - those irrational fears creep into the realm of rational. I know that my irrational fears are just that, irrational. Yet, I cannot convince myself, in the moment, that they are irrational. I used to be able to, but I no longer can.

We also haven't looked at the fact that even if we believe, and actually know, such fear of a "thuggish individual" on the streets of St. Paul at around 9 p.m. is irrational, there are many more - the entire population of New Prague springs to mind - who believe with certainty that such fear is indeed rational. Now, that fear, I think, is a different ballgame than what we're talking about, and brings up far more factors than I care to go into (i.e. media depictions of criminal behavior).

Also, Criminal Law is immensely relevant to this discussion, as much of what we're talking about is debated in the courtroom. The rational vs. the irrational is an immensely deep subject and has broad implications.

Did I just write that? Someone, please, hit me in the head with a skateboard...