The man in the gap or the gap in the man? – An Irishman’s Diary about men, women, and crime
‘The garda phoned a couple of times afterwards, first to thank me – as a citizen – for my contribution.’ File photograph: Bryan O’Brien
A few years ago, one Friday afternoon, I was cycling into Dublin in a hurry when I nearly passed what at first glance looked like – in the terrible word – a “domestic”.
That’s to say, it seemed to be a slow-motion, stand-up wrestling match between a man and woman who were drunk or high. But with a sinking heart at the thought of having to intervene, I stopped, looked closer, and realised it was no domestic.
The man was drunk, all right, or more likely strung-out. The woman was an innocent passerby who had been heading for the train station. The other thing I now noticed was that, in one of the arms she was grappling with, the man had a knife.
This was on an empty stretch of footpath, alongside a park. But I wasn’t quite the first person at the scene. There were also three teenagers, haranguing the attacker by name. Unfortunately for the victim, and for me, they were on the wrong side of the park railings.
So for a few intense moments, I tried to remember everything I knew about disarming drug addicts with knives. This wasn’t much. And to my great relief, it wasn’t tested. The mere approach of another male, combined with the shaming from the park, persuaded the man to walk away. Which he did, slowly: he couldn’t run.
The woman had suffered a few nicks and scratches, small but chilling, and was clearly in shock. Meanwhile, the footpath became quickly crowded. A Garda car pulled in, then an ambulance. Then two male drivers stopped. The park teenagers found a way out and joined us too.
Everyone was trying to help, in his (and they were mostly men) way. The Garda and ambulance did their thing. The teenagers, who knew the guilty party, cheerfully shopped him. The two drivers held a side-conference: hearing which direction the attacker had disappeared, one suggested “going after him”, whatever that meant.
I held the bag
Amid all this, I noticed the woman’s handbag on the footpath, still at risk of disappearing. So finding my level of heroism, I held the bag until she was ready and made sure it accompanied her onto the ambulance. Then I asked if I could ring anyone, but she said no.
And that was it. I’ve never seen her since – I hope she recovered. The garda phoned a couple of times afterwards, first to thank me – as a citizen – for my contribution. That felt good. Then I got the odd update on a case where I thought I might have to testify. In the end, it wasn’t necessary.
I mention this now for two reasons. One is that, in general, to be a man these days is to be in a permanent state of embarrassment at the behaviour, proven or alleged, of our gender. The news from mainstream media is bad enough. But in some corners of Twitter, it’s as if all men carry the mark of Cain. If not ourselves violent predators (yet), we know others who are and we’re complicit, if only through passivity or silence.
The second reason is an article I read (on quillette.com), which quoted a recent large-scale Swedish study of crime statistics. The big finding was that one per cent of the male population there committed 63 per cent of the violent crime: twice as much as the other 99 per cent combined.
The Quillette feature (“Rethinking Gender, Sexuality, and Violence”) was a response to the Weinstein revelations and allegations, and as it admitted, the Swedish study hadn’t focused on sex. But the writer argued plausibly for a similar conclusion: that a small number of repeat offenders were giving a very large number of men a bad name.
It’s a whole year since an infamous Donald Trump comment was excused as “locker room” talk. Let me belatedly break silence on that and say that I’ve been in many locker rooms – none American, admittedly – and don’t remember anyone ever speaking like that. If they did, I think, it would invite derision.
Elsewhere, as a student of those mass experiments in male drunkenness – international football matches abroad – I’ve often been struck by the extent of self-policing that has helped earn Irish fans a reputation for global philanthropy.
Usually, advice to “cop yourself on” is enough to curtail misbehaviour. But in general, drunk or sober, I believe that the great majority of my fellow men try, most of the time, to do the decent thing. This may be a statement of the obvious. I thought it needed saying anyway.