Moment of Truth

by Thom Riddle

Most of us in living in "1st world" countries go about our lives embroiled in trivial pursuits. This is because we have the good fortune to live in relative affluence. Most of our every day worries include such things as: how to get one child to soccer practice at the same time the other kid needs to be at a swim meet, deciding where to go on vacation this year so that everyone gets what they want, decorating the house for the holidays, and running a garage sale to get rid of all the stuff we couldnít live without last year. This affluence and our relative freedom did not happen by accident but was and is the direct result of our political/economic system that admittedly, is far from perfect. And yet it works, so far, better than any other system yet conceived.

In this environment of relative peace and harmony with scant worry about physical survival one has the luxury of thinking about esoteric things such as oneís character and ethics. It has been my experience that we canít really know our selves until we have been severely tested. Until tested, oneís self-imagined character is purely theoretical. A nationís character is just as real as an individualís character. The true character of a nation, society, or organization is revealed, just as an individualís character is revealed, in its actions(or inactions) not its words. Oneís actions during times of relative peace and harmony tend to reveal only oneís idealization or hoped for image of self. The true character of a nation, organization, or an individual is revealed when it is faced with life or death choices. Whether the imminent danger to life and limb is real or only perceived to be real, makes no difference whatsoever because our actions and reactions depend on our perception of our circumstances.

I learned a lot about myself from two experiences in which my life was threatened. I will not relate any details of the first one except to say that I was only 19 years old at the time and that I survived it without physical injury. The psychological consequence was that for the first time in my young life I realized that I was not immortal and that anyoneís life can be snuffed out abruptly and without warning. I went out the next day and bought a handgun with which to defend myself if my life was ever threatened again. I learned to use it from a friend who had been a gun nut for as long as I could remember. I have never been interested in guns for hunting or any purpose other than self-defense.

Fast forward about 8 years. My wife(1st of two) and I were driving down a major street in Atlanta late at night headed home after a party. No, I was not the least bit inebriated. When stopped at a traffic light, I turned my head toward the car two lanes over and saw a guy in the back seat raise a gun to his window and point it at us. I shoved my wife down to the floor and grabbed my handgun and pointed it at this guy. At that moment the driver of the other car saw my gun and took off. I chased them through the streets of Atlanta for several minutes until the other driver realized he could not outrun me and that I was not going to stop chasing him. He stopped his car and I slowly pulled up along side of his car with my gun still pointed at the guy in the back seat, who had since lowered his gun out of sight. The teenager in the back seat was apologizing profusely begging me not to shoot him, which of course I didnít. He said that the gun was just a cap gun belonging to his little brother and that he was just kidding around. Still pointing my gun at him, I suggested that he not do that anymore because he might run across someone who would shoot first and investigate later.

What did I learn from this about myself? Before this incident, I would never have imagined that I would have pursued a guy pointing a gun at me. Why did I do that? I have asked myself that question countless times and finely decided that the reason I did that was because it pissed me off royally. How dare he threaten my life without cause when I was minding my own business and hurting no one? I was outraged by this unprovoked threat and my reflex was to fight rather than take flight. Was this the prudent thing to do? Of course not, and I wonder now that I am twice as old, would I still do the same thing. I think I probably would. I also learned that although I go out of my way to avoid confrontation I am not afraid of defending myself when the issue is forced on me.

What else did I take away from the experience? I learned that a credible threat of serious retaliation can change the attitude of a would-be criminal and as a consequence may eliminate the original threat. I learned that confronting a would-be criminal with the outrageousness of his actions might possibly prevent him from committing this error again. I hope that the kid who threatened me took this experience to heart and realized that he was playing with fire. It is quite possible that this episode saved his life by preventing him from doing such a stupid thing again. I will never know.

Our nation has experienced many character-revealing times in our 227-year history and we are at one of those character-revealing moments of truth today. Since a nation, society or organizationís character is really the collective character of its constituents, and NOT the character of its leaders, this should be a character-revealing moment of truth for each of us who enjoy the freedoms that so many take for granted. How each of us, as individuals, reacts in mind, word and deed in these perilous times will reveal our true collective character and determine our future. Will we act with courage as the Iraqi named Mohammed did when risking his and his familyís life to save the life of Pfc. Lynch? It is up to each of us to make this character-revealing moment of truth one we remember proudly. We are not our leaders and they are not us. I challenge each of us not to let what our leaders do or donít do be an excuse for us individually and collectively.