Bullies: Public and Private

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The article about the beating of a homeless man caught my eye. I have a friend who is homeless, and I worry about him.

The victim in the story was sleeping in a park in Boston when he was attacked by two men who kicked him repeatedly, and then doused him in some flammable liquid and set him afire. (Thank God the poor guy was in Boston, that center of enlightened liberalism, instead of in some red-necked hamlet of intolerance!)

Such assaults are on the rise. I saw one report of 212 attacks on homeless individuals between 1999 and 2002, with 123 of them being fatal. The rate of attacks has gradually increased, with 73 homeless individuals attacked in 2005, 13 of them fatally. The attackers are, in some cases, teenagers. In other instances, they’re described as well-dressed. A trendy new hobby, perhaps?

This is an ominous development if you’re homeless, of course. Does it have any significance for the rest of us? Perhaps it does.

Homeless is often equated with helpless. If you have the urge to inflict pain upon someone, why pick someone who can fight back? And the homeless person is, I gather, rarely set-upon by a single individual, but at least two assailants, who may carry baseball bats or other weapons. Moreover, the victim is often asleep at the time of the assault. These attacks would seem, in other words, to epitomize bullying: picking on a relatively defenseless person for the sheer ungodly pleasure of injuring, embarrassing, or even killing him, inflating your own ego thereby. Not human nature at its best, but human nature nonetheless.

It isn’t only gangs of thrill-seeking ruffians who display this unseemly behavior. It would be bad enough were that true, but the tendency doesn’t stop at the lower levels of society. Consider the cold war: Uncle Sam confronted Boris, with much chest thumping, bravado, and tough talk on each side. There was also enormous spending on "defense," which, in my cynical point of view, justified the whole thing. (Nothing is more important to a modern government than spending!) But did Sam and Boris ever step into the ring to duke it out? Well, hardly!

Boris directed his awesome power against poor pathetic Afghanistan, with embarrassing results — sort of like Sam in Vietnam. And Sam, never one to ignore a challenge, however insignificant, showed mighty Grenada who was boss. He also invaded awesome Panama, capturing his erstwhile buddy General Noriega and throwing him in jail. Boy, did that feel good! More recently, Boris attempted the conquest of Chechnya, and Uncle wrought havoc upon Iraq. A couple of really tough guys!

Governments, it appears, are not much different from your run-of-the-mill bully. They talk tough, but pick their fights carefully, against small, weak opponents. Every pathetic little hamlet destroyed was, in alleged fact, a hothouse of dangerous insurgents! Every child shot to death was a dangerous suicide bomber — or could have been, or might have grown up to be one, had he/she been allowed to grow up at all.

Nobody likes a bully. In folklore, the bully eventually gets his comeuppance when somebody finally stands up to him. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know. As a child, I had no experience with bullies. But one thing is obviously true: the bully is alone. He may have his sycophants, but they will desert him in an instant if he appears to be losing his hold on his victims. And the victims outnumber him. Sooner or later they will realize that, even if he is big and tough, the bully’s no match for all of them. Once that fact is appreciated, the bully’s days are over.

The homeless person, sleeping in the park, is alone and unarmed. The bully and his cronies can pretty much do to him as they please. But Sam and Boris, even with their bureaucrats behind them, are enormously outnumbered by those of us upon whom they prey. We’re not some cowering foreign peasants; we are the producers of the very wealth that Sam (and Boris) rely upon to rule us!

So who has the power? A rhetorical question! Once we appreciate that fact, Sam’s bullying days are over. He’s a handful; we are in the millions, but still, alas, asleep.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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