Friday, May 27, 2011

Train of thoughts

This morning, as I was walking from the train station to my office building, I witnessed an interesting and oddly satisfying unfolding of events. There’s a school bus stop along my walking route (the kids who congregate there seem to be around middle-school age) and as it happened the bus was in the process of picking them up as I approached. The bus was at a full stop and had its red lights flashing and its driver’s side STOP sign deployed and everything, and yet a car blew past the bus in the adjacent lane. Not just any car (in fact, not a “car” at all) but a white Hummer. The school bus driver honked the horn as the Hummer sped by, in what I thought at first was nothing but a frustrated attempt to convey something along the lines of “Hey, I saw what you just did!” but not half a second later there came the bloop of a police car siren as a sheriff’s car appeared and pulled the Hummer over. (So maybe the bus was trying to get the cop’s attention, I’m speculating?)

It's not addressed to you but it does apply to everybody
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, maybe I should point out that all the kids were on the sidewalk where the bus door opens, and there weren’t any 11-year-olds trying to cross the lanes of traffic which the bus’s lights and sign are intended to bring to a halt. But be that as it may I am a firm believer in the principle at play in this particular scenario. So much so that as soon as I heard and saw the sheriff’s cruiser I actually said out loud “Aw, yeah, GIT ‘IM!” like some kind of crazyperson. (This high-adrenaline response may or may not have been influenced by the fact that I was watching an installment of the movie Inception on the train this morning, which I had known was kind of mind-bendy and all but did not realize had quite so many gunfire-and-explosions scenes, which tend to pump me up a bit.)

But right before that moment I had felt deeply conflicted because, on the one hand, my inner profiler was pretty well convinced that the person behind the wheel was a worthless human being. Ignoring the safety signals of a school bus while it picks up kids would be damning enough evidence, but the Hummer really put it beyond a reasonable doubt. I’ll spare you all my usual thousand-word screed about SUVs in general and Hummers as the most egregious exemplar of their inherent wrongness, but suffice to say it all boils down to selfishness. They waste natural resources, pollute the environment, are deadly to anyone in a regular car unfortunate enough to be involved in a collision? Clearly the drivers of SUVs could not care less about these effects which their choice of ride might have on other people, and just as clearly the man in the Hummer this morning could not have cared less about the safety of the school children around the bus because he had places to be and that was all that mattered.

Except … he was a member of the armed forces in uniform. That’s not exactly an uncommon sight in the corridors in which I work, obviously, but it’s been drilled into my head for years, ever since the first Gulf War as a matter of simple patriotism and exponentially moreso as a government/DoD contractor whose livelihood is bound up in the military: SUPPORT THE TROOPS. Budweiser makes unironic commercials about the fact that anyone wearing camo fatigues is a hero who deserves spontaneous standing ovations everywhere they go. And I’ve pretty much bought into that. So it’s jarring to encounter one of the troops behaving like an over-entitled jackass.

Then as I kept walking I started thinking maybe I had been too quick to judge. I’ll stand by my belief that no normal civilian needs to drive a Hummer. But what if the soldier I saw was an injured vet suffering from PTSD? What if he had been in a convoy that ran over an IED and he couldn’t drive normal cars anymore because of an irrational but unshakable fear that he might be hit by another roadside bomb at any time, and only a Hummer gave him the ability to leave his house? What if that was the same reason why he blew past the school bus, if he sincerely didn’t perceive it because his PTSD causes him to not always process everything in his field of vision correctly?

Which in turn was followed up with some thoughts about how driving is a privilege and not a right, even here in the car-culture U.S., even when your much older than 16 which is the last time I remember someone saying that and expecting to be taken seriously. I’m all in favor of senior citizens being re-tested and forbidden from driving when there’s a potential that they might inadvertently hurt others on the road. Maybe the same should go for veterans, too? I wholeheartedly believe we owe vets tremendously for their service and shouldn’t marginalize them, but if it were my kid who got run down at the bus stop I’d find it cold comfort to know the driver was a former tank gunner who couldn’t always think straight behind the wheel because of traumatic brain injury suffered while defending the country.

I don’t know if the cop was in any way influenced by the driver’s uniform, if he was let off with a warning or actually got heavily fined or what. I’m reasonably sure the traffic stop did not set the soldier off on a shellshocked shooting rampage, because they didn’t shut down the street my office is on at any point today. And I don’t know what the answers are to any of the questions I pondered as I made my way to work, just that it’s all pretty complicated. Everybody just make sure you always look both ways before you cross the street, OK?

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