The VigilanceVoice

July 9, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 300
Sweet 'N Low Larceny
A Question of Vigilance or Terrorism?

Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

GROUND ZERO, New York City, July 9--Vigilance forces one into dilemmas.  In my case, I was stretched between the horns of righteousness and self-honesty.  
       It happened yesterday

       I was standing in line at my local Starbucks, waiting for an iced decaf venti Americano when I noticed a street woman leaning over the counter next to me, fingering through the employee's tips contained in a plastic cube.
       The woman's hair was scraggly, rolls of fast-food fat embossed themselves against the not-to-well-fitting gray T-shirt she wore, and her stubby fingers dug surreptitiously around the pennies for the glitter of silver.
        Slowly, glancing to her left to assure the employees, busy making coffee, didn't see her, she rolled a couple of silver coins into the cup of her hand, turned her back as best she could to try and hide her act of extricating the money from its rightful owners, then lifted her head casually and looked around as though she were on a stroll in the park, soaking in the scenery and shoved her curled fingers containing the stolen coins into her pocket. 
         For a moment I was tempted to say something but instead, checked my tongue.   There were only two employees working, both busy making coffees.   The  register and counter displays were unattended.  
         Next, the disheveled street woman cuddled up to counter displays.  Two of them presented patrons pocket-sized tin boxes of candies and mouth mints to battle “coffee breath.”   Again, she leaned over and tried to use her body to block any prying eyes.  Her fingers crept along the counter, and spidered their way to the top tin.   For a few moments she tapped it with her fingers, then again looked up at the ceiling, a vainglorious attempt to draw everyone’s attention away from her fingers, not unlike the tentacles of an octopus which nefariously curled around a targeted tin, and in a practiced deft motion, she slid the tin into her soiled pocket.

        I restrained my tongue a second time. I wanted to announce that the woman had just copped a few quarters in the employees tips and ripped off a tin of mints, but the words hung unsaid in my throat.
        “Can I have a glass of cold water?”
        The industriously polite employee put some ice in a small plastic cup and filled it with water.   The street woman drank it down slowly and left.
         As she left, I hesitated and then said to the coffee clerks, “She took some of your stuff.”
         There was no response.   It was as if I had not said the words. Neither of the two young women looked up; they just continued brewing and mixing the drinks. 
         I thought about their lack of response. Maybe they were just Complacent, or not eager to enter into an argument with the woman, or accuse her and risk her "street wrath."  In New York City you never know what might ignite a person, especially one who lives in cardboard boxes, doesn't wash, and steals quarters from a tip jar.
         It wasn’t as if the woman had smashed open the cash register, or broken the pastry window glass and jammed her hand in to take a Danish, or worse pulled a gun  and threatened anyone.   Still, that righteous part of me could not be contained.  I had to throw a rock at her crime.  I had to be the "Sheriff of Vigilance."   Unfortunately, was no sound when it hit.
         Outside, I pulled my computer out of my bag and set up my writing tools on the cool Starbuck patio across from Cooper Union in the East Village.  Something nagged at me.   I began to reflect on my own righteousness. 

         Why had I hesitated?   Why I had nearly choked on the words:  “That lady took some of your stuff?”  Why hadn't I said:  "That lady stole some of your tip money?"
         The answer was pretty obvious.   I’m but a tiny step above the street lady.
         In my self-righteousness to fault another human being's actions, I conveniently forgot that I keep a larcenous supply of Starbucks Sweet ‘N Low at my house.  I justify taking of extra packets whenever I get a coffee as part of the “deal,” part of the “price” of the coffee.
          My "taking" of things that don't belong to me makes my actions akin to those of the street lady.  Perhaps I'm not as obvious—but fundamentally, I'm the same.  
           I’m a thief.  I take things that don’t belong to me.  I'm a Sweet 'N Low thief.
           I began to ponder other petty larcenies I have committed.  Pencil and pen stealing is one of my favorite crimes.  Whenever I eat out and charge the dinner, I automatically take the pen they give me to sign the check.   It just seems fair to me that the price includes the pen, but no where on the bill is the price of a pen noted.  There is no bill of fare for pens.    But in my larcenous mind, I somehow justify my act as righteous, deserving, outside the scope of criminality.  
            I conveniently forget that every added expense boosts the cost of food, shrinks the employees wages and fuels inflation.   A pen here, a pen there, over a lifetime, times 280 million people who might think as I do, amounts to a lot of money—all of which cumulate to my children’s and their children’s cost of living.
       Projecting out my acts of pen stealing, I’m an Economic Terrorist.   I’m stealing from the children, and their children.

            Hand in the Till

        There are countless other examples I could present—like not handing back any extra change you get at the cash register, or slipping a sale label on a non-sale item of Heath Bar Nuggets, or using someone’s phone without paying for it, or returning an item past its “legal” return date and arguing you just bought it yesterday.
        This idea of righteousness is similar to a hot potato.    It’s kind of like the politicians in Washington who start slinging mud and then another slings mud, and then everyone slings mud until they make a pact not to sling mud since everyone gets drenched.
        What about the WorldCom, Enron, Martha Stewart, Arthur Anderson fiasco playing itself out in the media.   Oh, how easy it is to throw rocks at those who stick their fingers in someone else’s cookie jar, forgetting, by only small degrees of separation, we are not unlike those whom we target with our lambasting comments about the “unethical practices” of the elite, while we, the common folk, instead of stealing billions, prefer to steal pencils and pens, Sweet 'N Low or keep any incorrect extra change, marginalizing our countless little acts of larceny.

        The law distinguishes between major and minor crimes—the misdemeanor being the smaller of the two, the felony the big one.    Oddly, a felony becomes something over a thousand dollars, in some states a bit more, but still a relatively small amount.   Crimes are then categorized by degree, first, second, third and so on.
        So I wondered what degree was my crime?   How did stealing Sweet 'N Low compare with stealing a quarter worth of tips, or a tin can of mouth fresheners?   Or, how did it compare to putting operating expenses into capital expenses and jerry rigging the bottom line so it looked as though a company was profitable when it wasn't?   Or, how about selling stock based on a hot tip from an "insider." 
          While it's hard to imagine myself a money mogul shifting my wealth around, I could relate to a street woman stealing a quarter and a tin of mints.   Was I just trying to elevate myself "above the salt?"   Was I justifying my own larcenous nature by berating another's?
        Terrorism is a termite.  It eats away at certain principles, taking bigger and bigger bites until we justify our actions with impunity by measuring ourselves against ourselves instead of against the common good for the children, and their children's children.   Those who climbed aboard the four planes on September 11 had convinced themselves they were working for a “just cause.”  The termites did their job.  They didn't think about the destruction of lives, or leaving their victims fatherless and motherless.   They acted without forethought.

         I believe Terrorism Termites gnaw daily at our Courage, Conviction and Right Action.   Terrorism Termites like the taste of these principled foundations of Vigilance.   They enjoy weakening the Pillars of Vigilance by eating our Courage and excreting it as Fear, munching on our Convictions until it has been masticated into squishy Intimidation, then digesting our Right Actions so their internal acids can break it down into fragmented Complacency.
         The street woman slapped some reality against my face.  I stood on my righteous soapbox and thrust a finger at her, forgetting that as I did, three of my own fingers were aimed back at me.
         Vigilance isn’t an easy yoke to put on one’s shoulders.   It means we are forced by its presence to think through our actions, and more importantly, to examine our bigotries, our prejudices, our righteous attitudes toward others.
         I condemned the street lady this morning based on her appearance.   I judged and convicted her, and then published my judgment to the employees of Starbucks, and yet I conveniently left out the fact I wasn’t a credible witness because I was, as the street lady I was accusing, just as much guilty of larceny as she.  And while she might have had justification for her actions, I had none..

       I have the economic power to buy Sweet ‘N Low, the street lady may not.   So who is the worst criminal?  I thought about that too.  The Vigilance yoke got heavier.
       On a much grander scale, I applied the same principle to the current war we are fighting against Terrorism.  I believe the Terrorism Termites are busy eating away at it.
        We have a nation in the midst of a war that no one seems to care much about.   There aren’t major pro or con forces either shouting for the end of war.  Complacency seems to have found a home in our thinking.   I believe we may be in the midst of Terrorist Termite feeding frenzy.   I don't hear conversations about the war at the coffee shops, or on the streets.   It seems the only people paying much attention are the news pundits, intellectualizing the war on Hardball.
        It's as though Terrorism, as a word, has lost its punch.    It seems unless we see burning buildings or people fleeing subways as anthrax is released, or a mushroom cloud rising over one of major cities, we don't say anything.   We just watch people taking quarters out of tip jars, silent, unimpressed.

         Simultaneously, we ignore the lessons of Terrorism.  We forget that Terrorism isn't about bombing the innocent, it's about striking Fear, Intimidation and Complacency into a society.   If that is its goal, it's winning the war.   Complacency seems to rule the land.   We made it through the Fourth of July without any trouble; why, perhaps it is all over!
        Maybe part of the reason I didn't say anything about the street lady wasn't so much about my own larcenous righteousness, but more because I am letting the Termites of Terrorism eat away my Right Action and leave in the waste of their destruction a pile of Complacency?
        I am not immune to Complacency.  None of us is.   We are all subject to it.
        Neither am I immune to righteous indignation or indicting others before I check my own set of values.   I find it easy to load my David's sling with sharp rocks and hurl them at the Goliaths.   I like big targets.   They're easier to hit.   

                   Loading my slingshot

       But yesterday a small target loomed into my sights.  A small, disenfranchised woman trying to eek out a living.   Maybe she wasn't doing the "right thing" but neither was I in jumping to the conclusion I was "better than" she.   I'm not.  We're all the same, fundamentally.    We all have our flaws, some more pronounced than others, but all imperfect.
       Vigilance may be the awareness of our imperfections.  It may be the motivation to heal them as we evolve from states of Fear, Intimidation and Complacency into more civilized levels of Courage, Conviction and Right Actions.
       The War on Terrorism for me, is not just about finding and prosecuting bin Laden, or those who physically threaten our nation.   It is about fighting the Termites of Terrorism that feast upon our evolution as strong, moral, dedicated human beings who place the welfare of  children, and the children's children's children before our own selfish needs.
       Stealing Sweet 'N Low when I can afford to buy my own isn't much different than cooking the books at a major corporation.  There is the same effect upon the children.  I set a poor example for my grandchildren of the Right Actions necessary to evolve.   I open the door to selfish larceny.   I show my grandchildren it's okay to "take" what doesn't belong to you.
       If I am going to "condemn" another, it is only fair I take a deep look at myself in the process.   If I don't examine my own foundations for weakness, little will result in my condemnation of others except proving more fodder for the Terrorism Termites.   Self righteousness is certainly a tasty desert for the Termites.

      Vigilance forces me to think.  It demands of me to question my standards, to ask myself questions I might not normally ask—such as, “Do I really have a right to throw a rock at a street lady for copping a quarter and some mints?”
       Maybe I do.   But not until I’ve retaken the Pledge of Vigilance and cleaned up my own act.



Go To July 8--War Is Hell--But A Vigilant Phone Call Helps

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