I’ve been thinking a lot about punching Nazis.
One Nazi in specific. The one who founded the “alt-right” moniker for the modern Neo-Nazi white supremacist movement in America and who was punched in the face on live television during the inauguration events on Friday.
I have complicated thoughts on his being punched. I am a non-violent person. Sure, I love superhero comics about bashing up bad guys, but I myself have never thrown a punch and don’t intend to.
So, here is a story about the one time I almost broke another guy’s knees.
It was at a party my Freshman year of college. Many of my friends were in attendance, including a fellow freshmen who had been accused of sexual assault by at least two acquaintances. He was not the sort of guy you’d expect to hear that about – he was as tiny and fey as I was at my tiniest and fey-est.
Of course, that doesn’t matter. Anyone can be a rapist. You don’t have to look the part.
Of course, I believed their accusations. Of course, I supported them.
I watched this young man walk past a group of my friends in the hallway, and as he did he grabbed my best friend’s ass while forcefully brushing past her. There was no context – it was not a pair of friends joking and flirting and giving consent for horseplay. It was obviously assault.
Now, I had (and continue to have) no doubts about the vocal agency of my best friend. She’s a badass sovereign woman who doesn’t need anyone to defend her as their territory. I also knew she had not invited the sexual assault she had just experienced from thus serial assaulter. I also knew that there were many other women at the party who were now at clear risk of being assaulted by this young man.
I walked up to him as he continued down the hall. I got very close, as if I was going to flirt or whisper a secret in his ear. And, I did. I breathed into his ear, “If you ever lay a hand on her again – tonight or ever – I will break your knees.”
I had never threatened another person before in my life, but I knew in that moment that I meant what I said. It didn’t matter if I got beat up by his fratty friends, sued, or kicked out of college. If I saw him touch her again I would make sure he would never forget the consequences.
He backed up a step and looked me in the eye. I thought about saying, “I’m serious,” but I didn’t have to. My seriousness was sketched clearly on my face. I stepped aside and let him pass, and then walked over to my friend to check on her.
A short time later, he left the party. We did not see him at any further parties.
I don’t tell this story to brag about being a tough guy. It doesn’t excite me. There are probably several things I could have done better in that situation. I will always remember it. It was a moment in time when my personal non-violence was eclipsed by the need to remove a malicious element from a space that should have been safe before he could do more harm.
That urgent need – to ensure the safety of others – rightfully eclipses other pacifist urges and priorities.
From there, I turn my attention to our Nazi. He wasn’t assaulting anyone. He was giving an interview in the middle of the sidewalk when a masked protestor ran up and slammed him in the jaw with his or her fist. It looked like it hurt.
The Nazi wasn’t assaulting anyone at that very moment, but his repeated hate speech has done more damage and harm than he could by personally throwing a fist. He has galvanized an entire movement that threatens the safety and sovereignty of millions of American citizens. He’s literally parroting language and beliefs held by a party that remorselessly slaughtered millions and millions of people just for being different during The Holocaust.
Was it okay to punch him? Would I condone punching him again? Would I punch him myself? Is it thought policing to silence him?
I’m not sure. But, I also don’t think it’s philosophically equivalent to say punching him for having “different views” means it would have been okay for a protestor to punch one of the women marching the next day. Said women would not have been espousing a message of genocidal hatred so vile that it seems as though it must be parody, because who could ever believe such a thing while knowing The Holocaust took place on this earth.
That’s like saying that someone would be justified to threaten to break my knees at a party for singing too loudly.
Ultimately, a Nazi is free to think any thoughts they’d like to think. My belief in free speech is such that I also think they should be able to say them, too. But once they are loudly espousing those views to incite violence and fear, they’ve transformed from free citizen exercising their rights to a proven radicalized terrorist. The First Amendment protects freedom of expression, but the highest court in our land has determined that it does not protect dangerous speech.
While I don’t think that espousing Nazism deserves a death sentence, removal of citizenship, or detention, I also don’t feel so bad about one of the nation’s leading Nazi’s being socked on the jaw to let them know that their brand of terrorism isn’t welcomed on our street corners and in our homes.
Where is the line? Do I think a GOP senator who wants to prosecute women who have abortions should be punched? What about one who vociferously supports a national Muslim registry? And, what about a GOP protestor punching an abortion practitioner – should that be okay? What about bombing their clinic.
I’ve been thinking a lot about punching Nazis.