In his essay “Of Physiognomy,” Montaigne wrote about two incidents, during times of civil war, plague, and general lawlessness, in which his life hung in the balance, dependent on the whims of his captors. In the first, a neighbor of his, having made a plan to seize Montaigne’s estate by surprise, showed up at his gate claiming to be on the run from an enemy. Soon afterward the man was joined by some of his soldiers, then more, until around 25-30 armed men were now on the property, awaiting a command from their leader.
He saw himself master of his enterprise, and nothing now remained but its execution. He has since several times said (for he was not ashamed to tell the story himself) that my countenance and frankness had snatched the treachery out of his hands. He again mounted his horse; his followers, who had their eyes intent upon him, to see when he would give the signal, being very much astonished to find him come away and leave his prey behind him.
In a later incident, while traveling in the forest of Villebois, he and his party were ambushed by armed robbers. After taking his money, clothes and papers, they debated for what he said was two or three hours on his fate. Suddenly,
I saw the chief return to me with gentler language, making search amongst the troopers for my scattered property, and causing as much as could be recovered to be restored to me, even to my money-box; but the best present they made was my liberty, for the rest did not much concern me at that time. The true cause of so sudden a change, and of this reconsideration, without any apparent impulse, and of so miraculous a repentance, in such a time, in a planned and deliberate enterprise, and become just by usage (for, at the first dash, I plainly confessed to them of what party I was, and whither I was going), truly, I do not yet rightly understand. The most prominent amongst them, who pulled off his vizor and told me his name, repeatedly told me at the time, over and over again, that I owed my deliverance to my countenance, and the liberty and boldness of my speech, that rendered me unworthy of such a misadventure, and should secure me from its repetition.
Did he really have a face and bearing so noble as to be capable of charming hostile assailants? I suppose it’s as good a guess as any as to how someone could manage to get out of dangerous situations unscathed. Perhaps it was nothing more than luck, of course.
While paying attention to news of the riots over the last few days, I’ve found myself most affected by the random incidents in which others weren’t so lucky. The man in Dallas beaten bloody in the street. The middle-aged pizza shop owner in Rochester and her husband, pummeled by looters while trying to ward them off. The middle-aged restaurant owner in Columbia, S.C., so physically imposing in his polo shirt and khakis that one mighty warrior had to sneak up on him in his blind spot to knock him out, before the rest of his fearless crew joined in the beating and kicking as he lay unconscious. I’m sure there are countless others who just didn’t happen to get captured in the background of some trust-fund anarchist’s Instagram selfie.
Media figures on sub-contemptible news programs like CNN and MSNBC, writhing in the tertiary stage of Trump Derangement Syndrome, have been sharing their hallucinations of invisible deep-cover white supremacist Russian 4chan boogeymen orchestrating all the rioting, but the reality, scarier than whatever insane gibberish Joy Reid is spouting at the moment, is that in many cases, these are simply people from the neighborhood. Last week, they could easily have been content to patronize that restaurant or store like semi-civilized human beings. They could have performed all the simple, mundane rituals of everyday life — nodding to each other, making small talk, exchanging goods and services. Then something imperceptible changes. An event thousands of miles away; a shift in focus; a change in mood; a gathering crowd; an agitating impulse; a brutal act; the exhilaration of release. Lacking the protection of a frank and charming countenance, or simply unfortunate enough to be in the presence of someone too devoid of compassion to recognize it, individuals are transformed into objects and acted upon; lives are violently altered in a moment.
Several years ago, I was on a business trip in Pennsylvania. We had driven hundreds of miles in a couple days, with hundreds more to go. We had been on our feet all day, working hard. My back was aching, I was exhausted, and we were both ravenous. We decided to stop at an Olive Garden in Altoona, I think. I got some kind of pasta alfredo dish with breadsticks and whatever else comes with those meals. The sweet, sweet carb rush took effect, my aches and pains started to subside, and I just silently basked in the glory of being able to stuff my face with cheap, tasty food. The manager came over and introduced himself, saying he just wanted to check and see if everything was to our satisfaction. I assured him that I was never better.
Now, I know I’ve just described an utterly ordinary scene that all of us have experienced. But I can only ask your forbearance for further adding a maudlin touch to it. My only defense is that it’s the plain truth. I swear, as I looked up at the manager, into what I judged to be his frank and open countenance, I was struck by a surge of emotion that I will translate into prose like this: How wonderful that there should be such a thing as a place where perfect strangers will feed me and show concern for how I’m feeling. Yes, I felt myself getting positively verklempt over the existence of chain restaurants and store managers doing their jobs. I may have blinked back a slight film of moisture. I promise you, if I had any more impressive mystical experiences to describe, I would, but that’s all the fates have seen fit to bless me with so far. I suddenly appreciated, in a way I never had before, all the tiny kindnesses and reflexive politeness that took centuries of stutter-start effort to develop and codify. It could so easily have been otherwise, and yet there I was, surrounded by strangers in a strange land, sated, content, and at peace.
It’s always the case that life is precarious and good fortune is tissue-thin, of course. As I get older, I more often think that I hardly know anything at all. But I do feel increasingly convinced that there’s nothing more unforgivable than those who destroy the fragile accomplishments of civilization, unless it’s those who make excuses for them. It’s the betrayal that kills me.