This is the scene I came across stepping out of the Bard Gaff this morning: A weeping, confused old lady lying on the pavement a few doors up from my place with two boxes of chocolate next to her which she'd obviously dropped when she fell.
"Did you see him?" she asked me. "Did you see him? He took me from behind and ran off down the road!"
I looked down the hill but her attacker had obviously gone. There was nothing to be seen except two rows of parked cars and some bin bags.
"No, I didn't see anything," I said. "Are you all right?"
"He took my purse!" she said. "He took my purse! Good job there's nothing in it but some cards"--this without humour--"I'd better call the police."
I offered to call them for her but she declined. She was outside her own door when this prize example of humanity seized her, and she said her husband was inside. The thought occurred to me that he might not be, but who could blame her if she just wanted to be rid of me? One stranger had just mugged her after all. Now another was offering priestly ministrations?
I told her my house number in case the police needed it or for her to use if she wanted help later on, and then I left to come into town and shop.
But all the way along my route to the shops I couldn't get the mugging out of my head. And in some ways I was--and am--more preoccupied with the mugger than his victim. She will be okay. She had scraped her hands when he forced her to the ground, and the shock of what happened will probably not leave her for a while; she will undoubtedly lose her trust in people she doesn't know for a long time, if not for good. But one day the experience will be a small, if traumatic, memory.
What kind of person, though, if that word is still applicable in his case, would do something as disgusting and cowardly and parasitic and inhuman as mug an old lady, and from behind, not even giving her the chance to see him coming and punch him in the nuts or shriek for assistance? How can anybody be so self-involved, so solipsistic, so lacking in the normal human feelings of sympathy and consideration for others, that they would be able to do something like that?
You might say I have been living in Balamory or Cicely, Alaska all my life, but I find the idea of such inhumanity (if that word doesn't exist it should), terrifying.
The trade unions, of whom I am a great supporter, warn that poverty tears apart the social fabric of the nation. They're right. But in my experience the poorest people in society tend to be the most brave and dignified and generous and empathic. To suggest that this mugger was created by poverty is an insult to everybody else struggling to keep a roof over their heads.
To suggest, even, (as I am tempted), that he was created by the dehumanising effects of Capitalism is a nonsense. Yes, in Capitalism a flat screen tv is more valuable than the person who owns it, and human lives mean less than the circulation of money. But we resist Capitalism's odious attempts to remove our moral compass.
And anyway, perhaps a man who professes to be a Buddhist and a political liberal shouldn't say it, but to be frank who cares what created the scumbag who took that old lady's purse and the skin on her hands and her peace of mind this morning? He probably would have been a parasite and a danger wherever he was born in the social strata. Whether the Pope or the Dalai Lama or the Archbishop of Canterbury or Thich Nhat Han or Barack Obama or anybody else I admire would agree with me, I can't help believing that some people are just born with a streak of wickedness in them. And nothing can excuse what the mugger did; nothing. If he is found he should be whipped until he pleads forgiveness and then thrown into a dirty prison.
That's not likely to happen, though, in a country where even a murderer can expect only fourteen years in the slammer.
I wonder if we have to look there, first, for an explanation as to why some people feel free to violate the Law with impunity? Even a streak of pure evil might be held in harness, in some, if the consequences for them were worse than the thrill of an evil act.