17 Sep

Should We Stop Giving People the Benefit of the Doubt?

Do mama bears give the benefit of the doubt?

Do mama bears give the benefit of the doubt?

After overhearing a conversation between two men this morning in Panera Bread and experiencing a weird situation with my daughter in Penn Station at the end of last week, I, the Sandwich Lady, changed my post subject today. Instead of posting about a Sandwich Generation topic that most of you will relate to–helping my mom with her DVD player–I HAVE to blog about a different topic because it is near and dear to my heart.

The two men’s conversation was about the tragic Navy Yard shooting  yesterday in Washington, D.C. They were questioning how this man, who had trouble in recent years, still had security clearance and access to the Navy Yard. It is a question that is being debated on TV and radio–I heard it driving my daughter to preschool this morning. And I think it’s because as humans, we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. Most of us believe in the inherent goodness of people. Most of us throw around, “She’s (he’s) crazy,” without actually meaning that he or she is mentally ill and capable of shooting people.

I think it’s time for us to listen to those instincts that are sending off warning bells in our brain.

Here’s what happened to me and KB the other day in Penn Station. Some people will think I overreacted or I was rude, but I’m going to claim it as not giving people the benefit of the doubt. (And if you know me at all, you know this is a HUGE step for me because I do this to a fault. . .)

KB and I were waiting in line to order our subs, as this is her new favorite place to eat. A man around 50 came from the back of the store and touched her head like he knew her. It all happened so fast, I can’t tell you exactly how he touched her head, but I had to look at him twice to see if we did know him. She also turned around to smile (I was holding her), and she saw it was a stranger and immediately buried her head into my shoulder.

THEN HE DID IT AGAIN–except this time he started flipping up her hair in the back–and I said, “STOP!”

Me and KB

Me and KB

I looked at him, and he didn’t look completely well, and I kept waiting for someone to come with him; but he was there by himself. And that’s when I realized that well or not, he was able to come to Penn Station by himself, order his own food, pay and so on, and so he  needed to know this was not okay.

So, HE STARTED TO TOUCH HER AGAIN, and I said, “You need to stop touching her. You are a stranger. She doesn’t like to be touched, especially by a stranger.”

He said, “Oh, yes, some kids are like this.”

Some kids are like this? ALL KIDS SHOULD BE LIKE THIS?

I wanted to leave immediately. I said to KB, “Let’s go. This is a long line.” And so on.

Of course, she started crying. “This is my favorite place. You said we could eat here.” And so on.

So, I stuck it out, and we ate, and so did he–about three tables  behind us, but we made it and got out of there.

So, my story is on a small scale of NOT giving someone the benefit of the doubt–this man probably meant no harm. But it was weird, my mama bear instincts were up, and I spoke up to protect my child.

It’s always easy to see once a tragedy occurs (hindsight is 20/20) that someone probably had some information that MIGHT have been able to stop someone from shooting or bombing others. But that person didn’t think that their loved one or friend could actually go as far as he/she did. What do you think? Should we stop giving people the benefit of the doubt–on a small or large scale? I would love to hear your thoughts!

bear photo credit: Little Bear Shenandoah  (http://www.flickr.com)


  • You know, I think we have to listen to our guts. Bottom line. There have been many times I ignored that inner nagging, fortunately to no dire consequences, but definitely there were times when I wish I had heeded those feelings more. Our world is changing; people are changing– teaching our kids (especially our daughters) to listen to their innate voices, to say no when uncomfortable isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity.

    Of course, the danger is profiling people with mental illnesses, stigmatizing or letting prejudices guide us incorrectly. I never want to live in a constant suspicious state or fearfully, but I do want to start listening to my gut a bit more and, as you did, respond when something doesn’t feel right.

    And the true sadness is we can’t prevent or safeguard ourselves from all harm. To think we have some kind of ultimate control places blame on the victims. Sad. Prayers to all the families touched by this tragedy.

    • Julie:
      Beautifully said. I definitely don’t want to teach either of my children to live in fear, but I also don’t want them to be too naive. I can think of several times in my past where I should have spoken up about something that I didn’t. And sometimes I debate and debate with myself, but I think ultimately it seems that if it is affecting someone other than myself, lately, I speak up.

      I definitely NEVER want to blame the victims in any situation, and as I said in my post, it is so easy to say We SHOULD have. . . or WE COULD have. . .in hindsight.

      I agree prayers are what we can do right now for those victims.

      And perhaps listen to our guts a little more.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Children are grown, living their lives, in other communities now, but I totally concur on your response to the touching by this stranger.
    I recall similar instances of “strangers” being just a little too forward. Alarm bells do sound and, as a parent, one has to respond.
    It is a delicate balance to strike between panic and giving someone the benefit of doubt. Instincts are good to follow, though, and I can’t help but think that it is better to err on the side of caution.

    As for the naval yard tragedy, questions abound not only about mental health status but, once again, guns. An automatic rifle in the hands of anyone is a hazard, let alone anyone who has anger issues.
    Life is not getting any simpler, it seems.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think I wouldn’t have freaked out so bad if he wouldn’t have kept doing it and KB was totally uncomfortable.

  • I think you did the exact right thing, so good for you, on many levels! :) I wouldn’t want someone I didn’t know touching me like that, and I certainly wouldn’t stand for them doing it to my child! I think it’s fine to give folks the doubt a lot of the time, but when you get that instinct, gut feeling, or just general bad vibe, it’s usually for a legitimate reason and you have every right to stand up for yourself and your loved ones! I understand why you might feel bad about telling him to stop or why you may feel like you may have overreacted, but I don’t think you did. There’s nothing wrong with what you did. HE was in the wrong for touching her in the first place, and then for continuing to do after you’d already told him to stop.

    I started to also add that it probably didn’t have anything to do with the whether he looked completely well or not but more with just the fact that he was a stranger, as I’d like to think one would have the same protective reaction regardless. Unfortunately, however, I suspect that if a 90-year-old grandma type did the same thing, you might be more likely to brush it off as KB just being bashful and try to talk her into saying hi or at least giving the lady a smile. It’s hard to say. As someone mentioned above, unfortunately, it is sort of like profiling of various sorts, but right or wrong, it’s always best to trust your instincts, no matter what triggers them.

    • Thanks, Teresa. I think you are right about “profiling” but its pretty much all older men that pay too much attention to a toddler girl. It happened in Sports Authority the other day too and Rick didn’t think the guy was creepy… so…. my only excuse– Mama Bear instincts.

  • Oh, I think that most of us, as good little girls go, dislike confrontation. And having to tell a stranger to keep his hands off your child–even though you have every right to do so–requires a confrontation of sorts. I struggled with confronting people, too, until I had children. For some reason, having children, and being responsible for their welfare, motivated me to speak up when necessary. And even when it was not my child (I confronted a woman in a department store once when she swatted her child–hard–and I was concerned for the little girl’s welfare).

    It’s one thing, of course, to confront someone who has directly threatened you (or your child). That’s an easy call–we go into Mama Bear mode, as you said. But to confront a population of society (as in those who have demonstrated a degree of mental illness) when we feel threatened is not as clear cut. People–even people who have mental health issues–have rights. Strict gun control laws are necessary but unfortunately, humans are pretty darn resourceful and will always find a way to get around laws, no matter how strict we make them!

    • Cathy:
      Yes, I dislike confrontation, although since I’ve been a mom, I have had no problem with this. One time when KB was little, we were in an elevator (little–I mean a baby), and this woman got in SMOKING–first of all, I’m pretty sure it isn’t safe to smoke in an elevator, but a baby is in there in close quarters. I told her to put her cigarette OUT! She said WHERE? I said, I DON’T CARE–just put it out!

      I guess with the whole mental health issue–if you feel a loved one or close friend is doing strange things/threatening things and we know about it, it is our job to let someone know? Who? I guess it depends on the situation. I’m sure every single LOVED one who has seen their brother/son/nephew kill a lot of people wishes they would have done SOMETHING more. HINDSIGHT.

      I know someone, a close friend, who was killed in a mass shooting–Officer Tom Ballman was killed in the Kirkwood, MO City Hall shooting in 2008, leaving behind a wife, a daughter, and a son. I wish someone would have realized that Cookie Thorton had a mental illness, not worried about profiling, and said something to someone that he was dangerous. Then my friend Tom may still be alive.

      I don’t see this as a gun control issue and I don’t want to argue gun control on this site.

      It is so hard to know when to speak up, but maybe we should stop giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.

      Cathy–thank you as always for your opinion. YOu are the best!

  • Yeah!! for healthy boundaries. You set a great example for your daughter. I am loving what you did for you, your daughter and for the stranger..

    What a great mom.

    • Thanks, Kim, that’s great of you to say and to stop by!

  • Strangers should never touch children unless it is a medical professional doing his/her job. I know children whose hair I would love to sink my fingers into but refrain. Although I know the parents, I’m a stranger to the child. Besides, it’s rude behavior.

  • You did the right thing, Margo. Trust your instincts. You set a good example for KB by speaking up.

  • Wow, you SO did NOT overreact.

    I can’t imagine simply touching another person in public — one I didn’t know — let alone a KID. Whether that man had something actually wrong with him in a sympathetic way or not, it needed to be dealt with. If he’s simply handicapped or has special needs or doesn’t understand, really, you handled it appropriately. If he’s worse, some kind of creep, you handled it more politely than needed, so kudos to you.

    As to the larger question: it’s SO hard to tell when someone will snap. We all have troubles. I don’t know much about the latest shooter but I do know that I see people under incredible amounts of stress every day, from things far worse than most of us will experience, and they do not freak out and start shooting.

    The answer for me is simply to get rid of guns, entirely. I know that may not be popular with some people, but I would make ownership of guns illegal if I could — for sport, for hunting, for anything. If that means getting rid of the Second Amendment (which has been misinterpreted only in recent years to apply to individual gun ownership) than fine: To sort-of-quote “The Daily Show” “They’re amendments: they’re THERE TO BE CHANGED. It’s in the word: AMEND.”

    Guns are one of only two things that when used the way they are intended to be used are always fatal. (The other is cigarettes). Why we allow them to be owned, manufactured, and used to shoot innocent people is beyond me.

    People will say the DC shooter could have gotten guns illegally, and maybe so. The fact that people will break the law is no reason to make it easy to do so. People get anthrax illegally, but we don’t allow everyone to just own their anthrax if they register first. “The Concealed Anthrax Law!” If guns did not exist, or were not legally available, it might have been enough to stop this latest massacre.

    You know what DIDN’T stop him? Everyone being armed: all, or maybe just 49, states, have concealed carry laws. And they haven’t stopped a single crime.

    • Oh Briane, that is quite a comment on my little post. :) But after reading your essay in INDIEstructible, I know you are prolific! :) Thank you for supporting me in Penn Station Sub. I was thinking the same thing when it was all going on–we don’t just walk up and touch adults–well, I don’t anyway, so what is the deal here? As for the larger issue, I respectfully disagree with you, although I’m not sure what the answer actually is. We do need laws and background checks and gun safety requirements/classes, but I argue in the Washington DC case, this is not about gun control but about mental health and thinking that just because a person is hearing voices in his HOTEL ROOM, he will not go off the deep end and kill people. Next time, don’t give someone hearing voices in their hotel room the benefit of the doubt. That’s my point. But still even if someone would have spoken up or tried to help him, he was a big guy and an adult, so . . .I think we often try to look for answers when there are no answers to be found.

      Thanks for checking out the Lit Ladies!

  • You did exactly the right thing.
    Funny story: In Malaysia (where my husband’s from), men love holding babies (even more than the women). So it was “normal” for a man to come up in a store and ask to take the baby. Even a guy on the airplane wanted to walk around with baby X in his arms. I thought, well, he can’t kidnap X when we’re tens of thousands of feet in the air. I just kept my eyes on them. So in that culture, I had to relax about it. But it was still weird :)

    • WOW! RIght, that would be REALLY hard to get used to. Good for you.

  • It’s never too soon to go into mama bear mode. I had no idea how strong this instinct was until I had a child. When my girl was only 3 or 4, there was a tragic spate of young girl abductions and murders. Often, it was someone the family knew or even a family member. I don’t know how you see that coming. All I know is, when we were out in public, I was completely neurotic about keeping my eyes and hands on my child at all times. It seemed to coincide with her first phase of wanting more independence, too, so it was nerve wracking, and I felt a little wild and crazy a lot of the time.

    She’s 14 now and I still have to set my jaw to get through even letting her go to the bathroom by herself in a store or restaurant. I only just started letting her go off on her own like this. Most of the time, I’m not really far away and still keeping an eye on her. When I see young kids on their own in a store, I keep an eye on them, too. It takes only a moment for it all to go horribly wrong. You can never get that moment back.

    My daughter calls me the queen of too much information. Fine by me. I explain why I am so careful with her. I explain (er…lecture) about bad people–male or female (who don’t always appear so on the surface) and she has been taught to trust her gut and err on the side of caution. In general, I encourage her to be open and polite, not fearful–that’s no way to go through life–but if she gets the slightest twinge of apprehension, that’s it. Outta here.

    So, to answer your question, I stopped giving people the benefit of the doubt a while ago. I’d rather overreact and apologize then give someone the benefit of the doubt and be sorry in a very different way later.

    Great blog post and comments, Margo. Keep it up!

    • Candace, I completely agree with you, and I am the same way with my stepson. KB has no hope. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad to see that it’s just not me. And you are right–a sorry later is much better than a mistake.

So, what do you think?