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Danger Close to Home
I was all set to write about Afghanistan this weekend since it’s all over the news for the moment—the attention will of course recede again after Labor Day when people return their focus to Ukraine, Congress failing to do its job and pass a budget, and the latest Trump scandal. However, something happened last night that derailed my Afghanistan train of thought.
On my walk home from a neighborhood bar a little before 1 a.m., I encountered several young black males walking toward me wearing balaclavas. These were not KN95 masks, or anything related to covid. In my years in the neighborhood, I had never run into a group of young men wearing face coverings like that, and my immediate reaction was that they were out robbing people and breaking into cars.
I stayed on the sidewalk and kept walking toward my building, the entrance to which was around the corner and maybe 75-80 feet away. My hope was they would ignore me, but I was starting to prepare myself for the worst.
Then, one of them stopped at a teal Mini convertible parked in the street, and he started pulling on the top by the rear window. I thought that maybe they would focus on the car and ignore me, but then the guy at the car yelled to one of his friends to give him the tool to break into the car.
That’s when I said something.
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Years of experiences (including some of the lingering psychological impacts of seeing so much horrible stuff during my years of international reporting) led me to that decision. Ever since moving to my place in D.C. in 2007, there has been persistent low-level crime in the neighborhood, and once every year or two something more significant like a shooting. When I say, “the neighborhood,” I’m really talking a one-block radius around my condo.
At least once a week I pass a pile of broken glass on the sidewalk from a car window. In 2009, my car, which was parked in a gated parking space, was broken into because a neighbor left their gate unlocked. It was the second car break-in I had experienced in my life. It’s a sickening feeling of vulnerability and violation.
I have a visceral, Hunter Thompson-like response to any crimes that violate someone, ranging from a car break-in to any physical crimes. I feel my blood boil when I hear of a crime of violence against an innocent victim (and I consider break-ins, robberies, etc. crimes of violence).
I hate living in a place where people violate each other so frequently and with such a level of impunity that there seems to be no deterrent. I hate feeling unsafe in my neighborhood. I hate knowing that there are people who regularly roam around and violate others.
Every time I see evidence of it, I get angry, and I turn more cynical about the human species. I simply feel like I die a little bit every time I see smashed car glass, or I get one of the almost daily emails from D.C. police alerting about a violent crime in the broader neighborhood.
That is always simmering inside me, so when I saw the kids/young adults about to break into a car that belonged to one of my neighbors, I couldn’t just walk past. I yelled at them to stop and walk away.
They paused and looked at me, and that’s when I noticed there were six of them and not just the three that I initially saw. One yelled something back at me, and I again told them to just walk away and leave the neighborhood.
It looked like a couple of them were ready to heed my request, but the one who was trying to break into the car approached me, at which point they all huddled around me. There was a fence next to the sidewalk, so they basically had a 180-degree perimeter around me.
The aggressive one, who was the smallest of the bunch and on his own no threat to me, started taunting me. He jumped at me a couple of times to intimidate me. I calmly said, “Guys, let’s all just walk away.”
But he was getting edgier and said to the rest, “He’s got a wallet, grab it.” He grabbed my pants, and I fought his hand off.
I realized that if I tried to disable him, the others would be on me in an instant, so there was “no military solution,” so to speak. I knew my only shot was to make a break for it.
Best case, I run, and they don’t chase. If they do, I only need to get 20 feet to turn into an alley crawling with surveillance cameras. I figured I would yell that there were cameras and that might break their pursuit. Worse case, if anything happened, it would be recorded.
I ran. They chased. I got around the corner and yelled that everything was on camera. I stumbled and three of them caught up with me. I hit the ground and they attacked. I fended off some of the blows and got back to my feet only to stumble again.
They continued their attack and I rolled and kicked one of them away, which gave me space to get back on my feet. I figured I could have taken one of them out, but I was afraid that if I started throwing punches or going nuclear on one of them, it would embolden the rest to retaliate in kind.
To that point, it felt like they weren’t hitting me full force. I don’t think beating people was their thing. I think they were thieves who used numbers to scare and mug people and otherwise broke into cars and they had gotten in over their heads.
I think that’s why they never hit me hard enough to knock me out or disable me. Once I was upright again, I rushed at one and grabbed his balaclava. I pulled it down and yelled that he was on camera. He backed off and I turned to one of the others to go after his face covering.
That did it. They broke off and ran. I called the police, and they took down all the details. The officer kept asking if anything had been stolen from me and I said no. He seemed disappointed. The problem was that meant the incident was only a “simple assault,” which is not serious enough for police to pursue with any vigor. As I later learned, robbery is a felony in D.C., so had they made off with my wallet, the police would have unleashed the detectives and mounted a serious response, hence the officer kept asking me to confirm if anything had been stolen.
(A bit of an aside, I learned this afternoon that two hours after my fracas, a woman who lives in my condo was jumped by two men who fit the description of group who attacked me. It happened in the exact same spot. She was not harmed physically, but is traumatized. However, the police went full-on in response to her case because it is deemed a felony.)
I made it home and eventually got to sleep. Today I went to an urgent care clinic, and everything checked out OK—just bumps, bruises, and soft-tissue injuries.
Now, why am I writing about this in a newsletter and website focused on foreign policy and international affairs? Because nothing like this ever happened to me in all my travels to the “most dangerous places in the world,” and that’s part of what’s been spinning in my head today.
In my international reporting career, I spent close to four years in war zones, insurgencies, fragile states, and other places where there was rioting, uprisings, or other forms of violence and danger. Now, four years is less than a quarter of the time some of my journalist friends have spent downrange or in hostile environments, so I have a smaller data sample.
Still, in my travels to Kosovo, Sudan, Colombia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya, I was never assaulted or attacked. I was detained once or twice, I had to run from gunfire, teargas, or other hazards (that usually were not directed at me personally), but I was never attacked the way I was in Northwest D.C. last night.
Again, small sample size—a lot of years in the United States and a small amount of time in so-called risky or dangerous environments—but still. Friends and family worried about me when I was downrange. People generally expected something to happen to me in places pejoratively referred to as “s**tholes” or places where “those people” are “violent” and have been “fighting each other for centuries.”
And yet, I met some of the most kind, friendly, and generous people in places like Yemen, Afghanistan, Sudan, and even Pakistan, despite my less-than-favorable view of the country as I have previously written. I was usually treated well and respectfully wherever I traveled.
That’s not to say there aren’t violent and dangerous criminals and terrorists in those places who would love to cause harm to me or anyone else. And it’s not to say I didn’t get lucky in some of those places when I was in some potential hairy situations.
But I can’t help but wrestle with the notion that I never got attacked in any of those places but did in an affluent neighborhood of America’s capital.
The other thing going through my mind is that had I been walking through downtown Kabul late at night (which I used to do frequently and should not have to the extent that I did) and I saw someone breaking into a car, I would have kept silent and continued on my way. My reasoning would have been, not my country, not my fight, and I’m not sticking my neck out because it doesn’t concern me.
That was one of the mindsets that made it possible to work in places like that and not get overwhelmed by the danger, dysfunction, and dystopia. Not my people, not my problem. I wasn’t there to fix those places. I was there to do a job, which was to communicate to the American and international audience what was happening in those places. So, things could be screwed up and devastating in many ways, but I could maintain some separation from it. Frankly, I can’t deny some colonialist thinking on my part, “that’s just the way these places are.”
So, I would have been a lot less likely to insert myself into a situation that could turn violent.
But when I came back to America, everything was personal, and still is. Everything I experienced overseas made me expect more and better out of the United States.
Maybe it would be different if this country didn’t spend so much time and energy holding itself up as an example of freedom, democracy, opportunity, and “peace” to the world. But it does, and therefore I feel it needs to walk the talk.
And when it doesn’t, I take it personally. It hurts my soul. America (and Americans) has done a lot in my adult life that hasn’t lived up to the ideals. There is inequality, crime, violence, weaponized politics, reality TV, and a host of other maladies in this country. Yet, it is a nation that has all the resources to be what it professes.
So, I feel a lot of frustration and anger when people in America choose to act in ways that harm others and the public good.
Last night I was confronted with a choice. I chose to stand up for what’s right, to look out for my neighbors, and to try to make a positive difference in my neighborhood.
I got stomped for it.