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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: No, etiquette avengers, he didn't have it coming

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Published:   |   Updated: January 15, 2014 at 08:41 AM

WESLEY CHAPEL — Evidently, the premise adopted in the wake of the movie house shooting Monday — indeed, the premise that led my “The Right Stuff” post — is not so universal as I'd initially supposed. And that's scary.

As I wrote for the blog, “You could jawbone this a thousand years and still never come up with a decent explanation for why what happened inside auditorium No. 10 at the Cobb Grove 16 multiplex had to happen.” Leave it to modern social media to turn presumed reasonableness on its ear.

A cast of enthusiastic dozens deposited hundreds of comments on the original article that appeared on TBO.com, and despite the overwhelming condemnation of the triggerman, retired Tampa policeman Curtis Reeves Jr., a statistically significant minority sounded a lot like the chorus from “Cell Block Tango” in the musical “Chicago.” How's that go again? Oh, yeah.

He had it coming.

***

Not in so many words, of course. Even those who found wanton provocation in 43-year-old Chad Oulson's role in the escalation — his failure to heed theater etiquette (butt in seat, cellphone off, or at least muted), his reported mocking of Reeves' attempt to get theater management to intervene, and his rising and turning to confront Reeves — stopped short of calling full-frontal rudeness a capital offense.

To that we sigh a grateful “Whew,” but add this cautionary note: Where they braked was close enough to the line that they could have spat across it. So while suggesting a few of y'all need to put it in reverse, perhaps the amended version of my premise should read, “Rational thinkers could jawbone this a thousand years.”

We're hearing also that this terrible thing, this exceedingly senseless, outrageous making of a young widow and robbing a 3-year-old tot of her father, is the inevitable result of a modern American culture that sings only in the key of “Me.” Especially — in a nod to the gun-control crowd — in a state where (according to Pasco County Republican state committeeman and state GOP Second Amendment chairman Bill Bunting) more than 1.25 million people are licensed to carry concealed firearms.

In fact, what happened Monday is neither new nor particularly original, except in its details. Humankind has been responding to rudeness with disproportional violence since the first thin-skinned party picked up the first rock. The clash that began with the beeping, swooshing and booping of a smartphone is nothing more than the latest episode of an unceasing series of unfortunate events that began when that first someone failed to be polite to another someone, and the other someone overreacted.

***

Regarding the imperative of individual civility, Judith Martin (the syndicated and indispensable “Miss Manners”) wrote this 20 years ago: If “doctors ... would look around their own emergency rooms, ... they would find that some of those lives that need to be saved were endangered because a dispute over etiquette — typically, someone felt treated disrespectfully — ended in violence.”

That was in 1994, when mobile telephones approximated bricks in size, shape and weight and nobody had to tell you to turn them off inside a theater because weak cell signals wouldn't penetrate the building. And still, the reward for oafishness was getting punched, stomped, knifed or shot. It's almost more than we who are inexhaustibly polite can possibly bear, a circumstance also observed and rued by Martin:

“Miss Manners can't even count on the company of those who profess to care about etiquette. Some of the worst offenders are people who are outraged at being treated rudely — they have been cut off on the highway, for example, or pushed on the sidewalk — and claim an exemption that would allow them to top that rudeness.

“Smash, bam. That'll learn 'em some manners, the etiquette avengers claim.” You know who you are.

Obviously, far more of us have the good sense to put distance between ourselves and abrasive actors than not, or the incident at the Cobb Grove 16 wouldn't be generating international notoriety. Thankfully, gunning down stubborn text-messengers has a ways to go before it's as commonplace as drug deals gone bad.

But if confrontations are so easily avoided, rational thinkers properly ask, then, how come it wasn't avoided here?

The Oulsons and Reeveses were on afternoon dates Monday, having waited out the crowds to see the weekend's No. 1 box office hit, “Lone Survivor.” Authorities say there were 25 people in the auditorium, leaving about 80 percent of the seats empty.

I mean, suppose the Reeveses had sat down behind a couple who'd had bean burritos for lunch or were loud popcorn crunchers. Who wouldn't relocate under those circumstances? But smartphone abuse is worth digging in over? Is this what we think “stand your ground” means now? Nobody backs away? Has discretion lost all its valor?

You have to be kidding.

Then it escalates. Really? Incivility becomes an argument; argument rises to shouting; popcorn flies and, suddenly, instead of someone retaliating with Raisinets, there's a gun and a single world-altering shot. Nicole Oulson takes a bullet through the hand trying to protect the life of her daughter's daddy, and suddenly a patch of red blooms on Chad's shirt.

Perplexed, the dying man utters precisely the right phrase: “I can't believe I got shot.” No one can. Things like this just don't happen, until they do. Then, victim, perpetrator or witness, there's a shared sense of astonishment. Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco called it: “Ridiculous.”

And then Oulson said no more. He chuffed blood and collapsed into the arms of Alex Cummings, who was celebrating the birthday of his 68-year-old dad, Charles, a Vietnam veteran, by taking in the tale of four Navy SEALs pinned down by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Three didn't survive; the fourth — the lone survivor — Navy Cross winner Marcus Luttrell, was recently asked, in light of subsequent events, whether he thought his friends' sacrifice was worth it.

Time to ask again. Is the thrill of texting when you know it's provoking others worth risking mayhem? Is enforcing your code of conduct with deadly force worth the rest of your life behind bars? The questions answer themselves. Nobody's looking for supertough heroes at a Monday matinee.

So that's it. Let the usual suspects chew over the fresh evidence — and, oh, they just cannot wait! — regarding whether we should confiscate everybody's firearms, or whether we should make sure everybody is armed. Never mind what the overwhelming statistics say about gun crime where it's easiest to get concealed carry permits (short answer: it goes down). Let's make law based on the sort of isolated anecdote that makes Frenchmen feel superior.

But as they take up the cause once more, this also must be weighed: Birmingham, Ala.-based Cobb Theaters has a gun-free zone policy, and that, with signs prominently posted, is exactly what the Cobb Grove 16 was — until Curtis Reeves Jr. showed up Monday afternoon.

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