Violence can and does occur anywhere at any time to anyone. While our current mass shooting epidemic has thrust this fact of being alive into our daily consciousness, I learned this lesson long ago. First, I learned when I was mugged and stabbed in the early ’90s during my freshman year at Tufts University, a private liberal arts college in the suburbs of Boston; then later, during my senior year, when I lived off campus with a mentally ill man who stabbed three girls, all students too, at a party; and finally, still much later, when I embarked on a career as a public defender, defending poor people charged with crimes, often violent ones.
But let’s start with my own stabbing. It was a rainy Monday night when it happened. I’d just entered the campus on a footpath adjacent to my dormitory. On the other side of the path was a large, well-lit athletic field, which, when the weather wasn’t foul, was populated by people walking, jogging or exercising their dogs. I was coming back from an assignment at a museum near Harvard for my art history class and was hurrying to get out of the rain. I was wearing one of those once ubiquitous yellow Sony Sport-Walkmans and blasting “Burnin’,” one of my favorite Bob Marley albums, when I heard footsteps behind me.
There were three of them. “Townies” was what the police called them: young men who resented and occasionally preyed upon the presumed (often correctly) affluent college students who came from near and far each year, infiltrating their town. They were a multi-racial crew, one black, one white and the third Latino; all three wore puffy “Starter” athletic jackets that used to be in fashion and each had a bandana covering his face to his eyes – the first thing that tipped me off to the trouble I was in.
Before I could react, the Latino guy grabbed me by the neck and the white guy pulled out a large Rambo-style Bowie knife, which he waved menacingly close to my face. The black man, a behemoth suitable to play linebacker in the NFL, stood in front of me, his arms folded, glaring. The white guy told me to “give it up,” but I told him I didn’t have anything. He said “empty your pockets,” and shaking, I pulled my keys and a few coins from my jeans before things turned violent.
Raising his knife high, the white guy suddenly brought it crashing down, stabbing me right in my left thigh. I stumbled backward, and it’s that stumble that probably saved my life, because that’s when the white guy tried to stab me in my chest. Later, at the hospital, the impression the knife-point made on my chest where it had failed to pierce the skin was a vivid reminder of my near mortality – a hickey from the grim reaper himself.
After they stabbed me, I crumpled to the ground, and they ran. Canvassing the area later, police recovered my Bob Marley tape on a nearby side street; it was broken. So was I. I remember clutching my chest thinking I was going to die before seeing the river of blood running down my leg. It’s weird, but in the moment, I was joyous because as potentially fatal as a stab wound to the leg can be, and even though I knew this subconsciously, I realized I hadn’t been stabbed in any major organs. I couldn’t stand but was able to crawl up an embankment to the front of my dorm to eventual help.
Now, one stabbing experience is surely enough for anybody. But violence can and does occur anywhere at any time to anyone. And while it’s unpredictable violence like lightning can and does strike twice; in my case, it did. One of my roommates in my senior year, an acquaintance before we moved in together, was, unbeknownst to me, seriously mentally ill. Before moving in with me and a mutual friend, he’d been receiving residential mental-health counseling; it didn’t work. One night, at a party I fortunately didn’t attend, he stabbed three girls before being apprehended, prosecuted and eventually sent to a mental institution. My memories of that event include his surreal, disheveled image on all the local news channels and having to scale a back fence to avoid reporters seeking comment, sneaking off to the airport and home.
After graduating, I didn’t give much thought to my unforgettable college stabbing experiences. If anything, I did what I could to bury the unpleasantness of their memory, with their violence, fear and pain. But after college, I went to law school and eventually became a public defender. For close to a decade, I represented indigent men and women charged with serious, often violent, crimes in D.C. Then, for another three years, I represented men sentenced to death in Alabama.
During my public defense career, I was often exposed to brutal violence: vicious murders and rapes and the most horrible, heinous assaults imaginable. Once I defended a woman who walked up to a baby carriage and punched the baby inside in the face. Another time a client of mine sexually assaulted and stabbed to death a woman and her daughter; he’d been terribly neglected and abused as a child and erupted after what he perceived as their rejection.
What I repeatedly saw as a public defender but had never before connected to my own stabbing experiences is that while violence can and does occur anywhere at any time to anyone, our response to violence does not need to be random, reactive or retributive, as it often tends to be. What I didn’t and couldn’t have realized in college, without my subsequent public defender experience, is that violence and the people who commit it are, more often than not, themselves the product of a cruel and unforgiving world, one often made even more excruciating to navigate through the debilitating fog of mental illness.
What I saw as a public defender was that violence rarely occurs in a vacuum. Very often, it swirls up from egregious economic and emotional deprivation and/or from beyond-the-pale physical and mental suffering. Hardly ever are people wantonly violent just for the fun of it. And that’s why as a society, we can’t just exterminate other humans or lock them up and throw away the key – no matter how violent they’ve been. Because although violence can and does occur anywhere at any time to anyone, the impulse to violence is almost never completely random; almost always it’s a long-festering expression of searing and savage pain — pain that is itself a frequent byproduct of violence, physical or emotional or both.
If we want to live in a better and safer world together we have to be willing to investigate and get to the root of the mental imbalance and pain that can cause a woman to reach the point where she can punch a baby. We have to want to help a man who stabs three different women, one after the other, when he should be reveling in the prime of his life. If we want to help people avoid and overcome impulses to act violently, we have to be willing to determine the causes of their actions before there can be any hope of squelching them. As Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project has written, “How a society chooses to advance public safety is very much a function of how it conceptualizes the problem.”
Violence, be it emotional or physical, is a fact of being human. No one will be able to completely avoid it in a lifetime. Indeed, as James Baldwin wrote, “[E]very person, everybody born, from the time he’s found out about people until the whole thing is over, is certain of one thing: he is going to suffer. There is no way not to suffer.” But it is our reaction to suffering and to violence, our desire to root out its causes and prevent its reoccurrence, not the exacting of punishment for it, that will determine our humanity.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq