The Seductive Dream Of Standing Your Ground

I didn't really comment on Bob Costas's statement on handguns, mostly because I thought it was a little too broad for my tastes. I wasn't clear on what, precisely, what he was proposing. There's also something a little too easy about putting Kasandra Perkins' death on the presence of handguns. Men have been murdering their significant others since time immemorial. I understand that handguns make it easier -- much as cars make alcohol-related deaths more frequent. But it doesn't really strike me as a strong argument to speak with certainty about the counter-factual. Kasandra Perkins also liked shooting guns. Perhaps that drew them closer. I don't know and I don't see how anyone can.


But the other day I was biking home at a relatively late hour. I was coming up Massachusetts Avenue, in Cambridge. I was a couple of blocks from my crib, when a car full of young black boys pulled up slowly next to me. They were laughing among themselves, and one of them mumbled loud enough for me to hear, "Wait, I thought that was my bike. I got my bike stolen last week," and then they drove off.

When you grow up as I did, you take these sorts of encounters as a threat. When I was a kid and we were looking to jump someone, it was pretty standard for them to "invent" a reason. I'm not saying that other people don't do the same (I suspect they do). But I am speaking from what I know. The (aborted) threat didn't scare me as much as my immediate response. I was very angry, and what I wanted, more than anything, in that moment, was for the car to stop, and for one of them to approach me. Then I would bash that kids head in with my bike lock. 

That was a really stupid idea.

The man in me knows how macho imaginings usually outstrip reality. He also knows that this may not have even been a threat. He further knows that kids, in general, do dumb shit. But that wasn't the man in me talking. It wasn't the father who knows he needs to be around for his child. It wasn't the husband, who knows his wife is back in New York depending on him. It wasn't the writer who hopes that his best words are still in front of him. It was some little boy who got jumped repeatedly more than two decades ago, back in West Baltimore, and has spent the rest of his days just "wishing a nigger would," as my people say.

That boy is a damn fool. And part of any adult's maturation must be keeping the idiot in them under wraps. But I can't kill the boy. Nor should I. It's that same boy who tells me not to punk out when I'm doing my miles, not to be a chump and take a day off from writing. The boy reinforces the man. But he needs guardrails.

I suspect that a good way to remove the guardrails is to put a gun in my hand. I didn't say anything when those kids rolled up on me. I knew I was outnumbered. But give me a gat, give me that same anger, and that thirst for revenge, and it takes nothing for me to see myself yelling at those kids, "Nigger, what?" and hoping, praying, they stopped the car and got out.

You might say they initiated the aggression. I say I don't want to kill anybody. I say that there are things worth more than my life -- like how I want to live it. And I know that after the boy has his moment, the man must take the weight. There must be consequences, moral or otherwise, for even those killing which the law would relieve you of. It must alter you, just a little -- unless you've already gone there.

I haven't.

But I think a small part of me is always spoiling for a final fight. And I think it must be a seriously well-adjusted human who has none of that in them. Perhaps Michael Dunn would have told those kids to turn down their music, no matter what. But perhaps knowing that he had the ultimate power in his hands to annihilate all of them, gave him a little edge. Very few people, no matter how "responsible," would be immune to such a feeling. 

Fantasies of standing your ground come easy to us because, at some point in our lives, we've all fled the field. Having fled repeatedly, I will tell you that it's a horrible feeling. Some of us live to never feel that way again. And others of us kill
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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