City The Stranger
This week’s Police Beat includes an unsettling report of a man who was randomly and repeatedly stabbed just outside of Cal Anderson Park thirty minutes before the day came to an end. The attack was exceptionally vicious, and the man is lucky still to be on this side of all there is. The report reminded me of a passage that runs between the fourth and seventh page of Jonathan Raban’s first masterpiece, The Soft City. In it, he attempts to connect the reality of random acts of violence with the estrangement or alienation that for city dwellers makes “hatred a dreadfully easy emotion.” Raban writes:
“In rural areas the majority of the victims of violent crime know their assailants (indeed, are probably married to them); in cities, the killer and the mugger come out of the anonymous dark, their faces unrecognised, thier motives obscure. In a city, you can be known, envied, hated by strangers.”
Although random acts of violence do actually happen, we never really believe they are in truth random. No one believes that something can happen for no reason at all. Even though that is a fact of life itself, we refuse to accept this fundamental fact. The stars have meaning, as well as stingrays. And so our thinking goes: The man leaving Cal Anderson Park must have done something to provoke the attack, and it is only random because he doesn’t know what it is he did. If he can determine the cause (a shirt he wore, a word he said, the way he walked) then there you have it: don’t wear that shirt again, or talk that way again, or walk that way again in that park.
If the stranger can not provide us with a reason, a motive (money, sex, revenge) then we turn to the victim and cast blame on him or her (why were you in that park late at night in the first fucking place?) because we refuse to believe that anything can actually be the result of random factors, random actors.