Life and Zivilcourage
As a long-term ex-pat, it’s sometimes hard to separate what you learn from living in a foreign country and what you learn just as a routine part of getting older. Since I moved to
What would I do?
I’ve never really been privy to serious violence but there are at least two instances where I was disappointed by my reaction. Two events that I still run through my brain on sleepless nights. Granted, they border on the banal.
One night I was on my way home from a buddy’s and was standing on some random Kreuzberg U-Bahn platform when a Turkish guy started play fighting with his girlfriend (does it matter what nationality the guy was?). “Play” is used loosely in this context as the ritual was more a show of dominance and poorly disguised misogyny. It was clear that with the right combustibles and behind a closed door, the play could (and would) become abuse. But so the two fought and the girl giggled and then she got a bloody nose.
These were two adults I reckoned. It was stupid and naïve but there you go. That’s life. However, the entire time a guy with Downs Syndrome had been watching with great concern. The bloody nose was too much for him to take. He asked (to be honest, it was more begging) the boyfriend to please stop hurting the girl. As soon as the man opened his mouth, I cringed.
What came next was a fountain of obscenities and threats from the boyfriend. The insults were bad enough but to threaten someone who is just voicing concern over someone you supposedly love seemed a tad much. The Downs Syndrome guy just stood there and absorbed the tirade, still obviously concerned about the girl. What did I do? Moved to the other end of the platform. At the time, I thought my only option was to intervene and tell the boyfriend to lay off. To worry about himself. That this guy was only concerned about his girlfriend and didn’t necessarily understand that it was play fighting. I figured the boyfriend would most likely leave the man alone because of his handicap but might not respond so compassionately to me. So I left.
And it still bothers me.
This week, during a sleepless night over a recent tax audit, a potential solution occurred to me. I should have just tried to extract the retarded man. Asked him his name and asked him to escort me to the other side of the platform. I have no way of knowing if this would have actually worked, but I’m pretty sure I should have done something.
About that same time, there was a smaller, similar incident that still stays with me. There is a woman that wanders the streets in our neighborhood with the kind of genetic disease that has left her short, misshapen and with a face that would have certainly landed her at the bottom of a well or had her flaming on a stake 200 years ago. I only ever see these kinds of people in
She stumbles through the streets muttering to herself (if you listen closely you’ll hear her insulting everyone who passes by). She totes a plastic bag that she fills with deposit bottles and anything else re-usable she finds in the trash cans on the corner. She’s harmless and just another piece of the urban wallpaper.
One day a local teen-ager took it upon himself to discuss her constant muttering with her. She responded with the kind of hate and scorn you’d expect – I assume he was just fulfilling the paranoid dreams that fill her life. But rather than keep on going he stopped and confronted her with another stream of obscenities. This lasted for several minutes with the woman working herself into a defensive fury and the boy relishing her pain. He was no threat to me and it would have been nothing to say: hey, fucking stop. Now.
But I didn’t. I went to get a coffee. And it still bothers me.
When I think about these things (and, to be fair, it occurs to me that there are many more examples where I actually did something), I wonder if this is just a part of life and getting older, or part of life in Germany. I’m bothered by the fact that a public service campaign has co-opted and labeled my own internal doubts – Zivilcourage. This further complicates my contemplations on what it all means.
Though, maybe it just means I should occasionally show more Zivilcourage.