Saturday, May 07, 2011

How Osama bin Laden Took One for Calvin

When I was in grade school a kid named Calvin used to beat me up. I have no idea what I did to tick him off. I suppose one could say he was no respecter of persons when it came to choosing victims. In a perverse way I guess you could consider him as some kind of equal opportunity thug. Maybe that's what allowed him to look at himself in the mirror each morning. "I think I'll thump on Grant today," I can hear him saying. "I haven't whupped his butt for a week. It's his turn. It's only fair."

My house was just across the street from King George Elementary School on St. Catherine's Street in Guelph, Ontario. Canada. If I played my cards right I could escape by exiting from a different school door and slip quietly across the street before he was wise to me. My grandmother lived with us at the time and though she was a mere wisp of a thing Calvin knew she wasn't to be messed with.

However, if I miscalculated my escape route I would inevitably find myself laying on my back with Calvin sitting on my chest explaining to me why I shouldn't be occupying space on the face of the earth. When he asked if I understood him I pulled the secret kid trick of crossing my fingers when I answered. If you do that the answer "Yes I understand"actually means "I'll take it under advisement." Ha, Ha, phooey on you, Calvin!

Okay, I'll admit that I may have taken some slight literary license in introducing you to Calvin, but he did exist and he did harass me from time to time for no sufficient reason. We've not stayed in touch but I still wonder now and then where he's doing time.  He is for me the human face for bullies of all kind. In the past few weeks we have encountered several of them around the world.

We have come to painful awareness of what is happening in our schools when teenagers take their own lives rather than submit to the bullying tactics of classmates who taunt them for reasons ranging from appearance to athleticism to sexual identity. Mature adults, faced with what is happening to teens around them, are forced to revisit their own childhood and come face to face with long suppressed memories.

There is no social consensus around the definition of a bully. One study defines the elements thusly:
Bullying involves a desire to hurt + hurtful action +  a power imbalance + (typically) repetition + an unjust use of power + evident enjoyment by the aggressor and a sense of being oppressed on the part of the victim.
There are obviously many other ways of defining the subtleties and varieties of bullying. It is clear that there is an evolving awareness of the terrible toll it takes on kids, and to some degree on all of us. Tragically late in coming, but welcomed nonetheless.

This kind of thing was going through my mind as we began to hear about American military forces taking out the world's Bully-in-Chief, Osama bin Laden. My jubilation was remarkably free of parsing and justifying. I am not a pacifist but my commitment to non-violence is deeply rooted. I have opposed every U.S. war since Vietnam, with the possible exception of limited military actions to secure human rights, prevent genocide, and defend direct attacks on American soil.

Calvin as I imagine him today.
It is extremely difficult for me to celebrate a violent death of any kind. The assassination of bin Laden (and there is no doubt about it--this was an assassination) was ultimately a symbol. He was an old man on the run for a decade and his impact on world affairs was in decline. But his death, far more than some protracted trial, was the only thing that could satisfy.

I believe that the outpouring of joy was somewhat personal. I saw it as a blow not just at international terrorists but at those who terrorize our children in school and throughout our communities. As for me, I will continue to support non-violence and just live with the knowledge that sometimes my actions will fail to be consistent with my own beliefs.

Of course, I wish no such outcome for Calvin. For all I know he's a concert violinist somewhere in Europe and the head of a philanthropic organization that defends the immutable rights of puppies. I just hope he thinks of me now and then and has a twinge of regret.

One of the cornerstone principles of my life comes from my own faith tradition. It declares that "all persons are of inestimable worth in the sight of God."  I believe that.

I'm still working on how to apply that principle to Osama bin Laden. It probably will take a lifetime but I have to keep trying.

As for Calvin, I know that bullying bears no comparison to mass murder. However, don't ever think that the loss of a child who was bullied to death in school is any less painful to that family than the thousands of families who were changed forever one September morning in 2001.

So here is my offer, Calvin, wherever you are. I apologize for whatever I did to make you dislike me so. And I forgive you for those times when you thumped me for no reason at all.

At least that's a place to begin, eh?