Thursday, July 05, 2007

Pity for Madmen

Dr Samuel Johnson (1707-1784) is one of the most quoted men in history. Like me, he was interested in a wide range of things, and had opinions on almost all of them. This morning, my "Daily Curmudgeon" e-mail contained a Johnson quote I'd not heard before, that bears repeating:

"If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards."

It seems to me that this quote is very appropriate for our times.

Liberals would see the madman in the room and steadfastly defend his right to beat us up with the stick, wiewing any infringement of his right to do so as an unconscionable limit on his freedom of social and political expression.

Conservatives would angrily reject any limits on the madman's right to own a stick, regardless of whether or not they ran the risk of his use of the stick to beat them.

If the madman were a Muslim, the Islamic community would blame the madman's actions on Israel and the United States, claiming that he was driven to his actions by all the grievances he'd amassed over the terrible things everyone else had done.

You can snicker at these generalizations, but I think you'll find that they are pretty close to current reality. I don't like generic political labels, but in this case, I believe they serve to illustrate my point. In the case of the madman in the room, "liberals" would worry about the madman's rights and their perceived guilt for his situation; "conservatives" would worry about the implications of limitations on the madman's right to possess his weapon; and Muslims would angrily blame everyone but themselves for the madman's mental state.

More than 200 years ago, Dr Samuel Johnson recognized that the most important thing was to protect oneself from the madman, and that there would be plenty of time later to pity his condition. Today, sadly, it seems we're more inclined to worry about our responsibility for the madman's condition than about our own safety.

Does anyone but me see something wrong with this picture?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


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