Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Last Refuge

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent

Isaac Asimov, Foundation

I read the above quote many, many years ago. While I don’t remember much about the book itself, that quote has always stuck with me, and I think of it often. Just last week, for example, it came to mind as I watched the final minutes of game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. With Colorado holding a 7-0 lead and having made Tampa Bay look (and, no doubt, feel) incompetent from start to finish, Lightning players began to do what hockey players almost always do in that situation: they resorted to violence, finishing every check with far more gusto than they’d shown most of the night. Some of the hits were borderline late. Some of them were borderline high, or borderline from behind. At least one of them looked like an attempted clothesline, but either the officials decided to just get the game over with as fast as possible or they didn’t want to risk further embarrassment to Tampa by putting Colorado back on the power play late, so they let pretty much everything ride over the last five minutes.

This quote has also been on my mind quite a lot for non-hockey reasons. When I posted “On the Barricade” after the leak of the draft Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision, I walked up to that quote, took a good, long look at it, and then decided to leave it out of my post in favor of the saltier quote from Jules Winnfield: “When motherfuckers get scared, that’s when motherfuckers accidentally get shot.” That quote seemed more appropriate at the time because, while the draft scared a lot of people, it was still only a draft, and as long as it was only a draft, there was still hope (And let me digress to say I personally thought it might be a ploy on Justice Alito’s part, a decision he wrote (and maybe leaked) in the hopes of pushing other justices to his side. I hoped that Roberts, or maybe even Kavanaugh might ultimately swing the decision in favor of upholding 50 years of precedent, of “settled” law. Bless my naïve heart).

There was a second reason why I backed away from Asimov’s quote: the word “incompetent.” “Incompetent” implies a person who is incapable. They lack skill or ability to do something. In the game last week, Tampa players were incapable of keeping up with a Colorado team that was faster, hungrier, and more skilled. They were incompetent, and they resorted to violence. But here, incompetence is not the issue (at least not on the part of the people who might resort to violence). People were scared then, and angry. They’re more scared—and angry—now, but they’re not incompetent, they feel powerless, and that is the real reason I fear this country is real danger of sinking into a prolonged period of violence (if I’m being truly honest, I think we’re already there).

Think on this: today’s decision instantly took away what has been a basic right from 14.6 million women and girls in the 13 states that have so-called “trigger laws”. Meanwhile, the Guttmacher Institute lists 26 states that are are considered “certain or likely” to ban abortion. If this happens, nearly half of women aged 13-44 in the United States will lose access to abortion. As you read this legislative bodies across the country are furiously working on bans and restrictions—legislative bodies that are overwhelmingly male, mind you. This is not incompetence on the part of the nation’s 167.5 million women and girls; this is not incompetence on the part of the 61% of adults in the US who think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. This is about being silenced. This is about having your agency taken away. This is about having no say in what happens to you, about not having the power to make a very personal decision, about having a life-altering decision forced upon you. When people are rendered powerless, when people like it they don’t matter at all, when people feel their wants and needs are being blatantly ignored—well, we’ve seen this before. That’s also when motherfuckers get shot, accidentally or not.

Violence isn’t just the last refuge of the incompetent. It’s also the last refuge—maybe the only refuge—of the truly powerless. In the last two years we’ve seen protests in major cities across the country, some of which turned violent, because people’s basic right to live freely and in peace and safety have been ignored. We’ve saw a violent storming of the Capitol because many among the mob believed the will of the people was ignored (that they were lied to for four + years about election integrity is in some ways beside the point: many of these people believed what they were told, and a sad number of them still do, which doesn’t bode well at all). Now? Nearly 51% of the population have had a right stripped away, and Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion makes it pretty clear that the court is not done. Gay marriage, contraception, same-sex relations—everything seems to be on the table (except interracial marriage, it seems; wonder why). We’re also seeing laws that will further limit the ability of people to vote, and redistricting that further sidelines voices that are not conservative. All of this points to a violent time ahead. I hope we can find a safe way through.

2 Responses

  1. This is such an emotional issue and each situation is full of individual challenges. I confess that I find it ironic that one of the issues the court decided was allowing interracial marriages, of which Thomas is a part of. I’d have expected more understanding from him.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Donna. While I agree it is an emotional issue, I don’t think it’s a difficult one (and I realize for many people “on the other side” of the debate, it’s also not difficult). Well, *this* court did not decide on interracial marriage–it’s not curious at all that Thomas didn’t mention it in his concurring opinion, but he’d better be careful: his colleagues either lied or misled about Roe under oath in their confirmation hearings, so anything they may have told him privately about interracial marriage is suspect.

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