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Because They’re Not Capable of Defending Themselves

What’s more patronizing: making a joke at someone’s expense, or the contention that the subject of the joke is not capable of defending themselves?

This week it’s war veterans who are not capable, or so some readers seem to be saying. Let’s start with the story — from True‘s 8 February 2015 issue:

Status Doesn’t Always Give You a Leg to Stand On

A few weeks after splitting from her husband of one year, Gemma Pattison, 26, went out drinking with some friends. She met former infantry private Tom Lawlor, 24, who had lost both his legs to a Taliban bomb in Afghanistan, and invited him over for a tryst. The couple left Lawlor’s prosthetic legs downstairs and went up to the bedroom. That night Pattison’s husband, florist Harry Pattison, 28, who had also been out drinking, came by to ask his estranged wife “to see their dog” — at 4:30 a.m. The back door was unlocked and Harry let himself in, prompting Gemma to jump out of bed to see who the intruder was. “She came across the defendant at the bottom of the stairs,” explained prosecutor Kathryn Reeve. “He was very upset she has got another male at the address only a few weeks after splitting up after a long-term relationship.” Harry then allegedly started punching Lawlor in the head, with Lawlor unable to get away without his legs. “This was a serious incident of domestic violence,” said Magistrate Carl Harwood. “Mr. Lawlor was clearly unable to defend himself.” For the assault, Harwood sentenced Harry to a suspended jail sentence, three months on curfew, a restraining order, and a £1,156 (US$1,760) legal bill. (MS/London Telegraph) …Well, it’s apparent Lawlor had at least one working limb.

LawlorIs the tagline a bit crude? Sure. Will that be to everyone’s taste? Nope. Is it funny to most? Yep. One mistake True contributor Mike Straw (the “MS” in the source info) made was that he forgot to include the location of the events. There is a hint in the source, and indeed the event occurred in England — Scarborough, in North Yorkshire. The file copy will be edited to add that fact.

But even if the tag is a complete dud, or far off the mark, we’re all human: we work to stretch the envelope a bit, and sometimes we screw up. You should applaud that we try to explore different, unexpected, points of view. Don’t like it? Fine: that’s just one story of a dozen that week alone. Try the next one! You know that you like most of our efforts, or you wouldn’t have subscribed in the first place.

That said, I don’t think that was the case here. There were no complaints from the Premium edition readers, but when this story came out in the free edition, several readers stepped forward because they thought Lawlor couldn’t:

“Making fun of a disabled veteran instead of his attacker was too much. Unsubscribe me.” —Jim, Ohio

(Notice it’s OK to make fun of someone, as long as it’s the right someone, such as a cuckolded husband.)

“Really? Why are making fun of an American Vet? He was attacked by someone. And you are making fun of him because he has sexual needs like everyone else? Come on. You can do better.” —Jeff, New Jersey

(So, it would be OK if it weren’t an American vet? Perfect! Problem solved!)

There were others, but you get the idea.

Readers who really pay attention will remember that Mike (the story’s contributor) is a career (American) military man. Or, at least, he was — he retired recently, after 25 years in the Air Force. He deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. You guessed it: he’s a disabled vet. If anyone is in a position to make a joke about a disabled veteran, maybe a disabled veteran is the one.

This is highly reminiscent of a previous case, which I happened to find as I was researching this week’s “Ten Years Ago in This is True” entry. In early 2005, I made a “blind joke” that quite a few readers complained about. I wrote about that in my blog too: The Dumb Leading the Blind. Jennifer, a blind reader in California, commented “Few ‘sightlings’ are capable of seeing the humor in blindness, and it was refreshing to read your jokes and comments. Thank you for pointing out, by the way, that we blind folk are perfectly capable of writing and complaining ourselves if we’re offended.”

“Notice,” I said in response to Jennifer’s letter, “that she didn’t.” Rather, she found it refreshing. Yet many readers simply assumed that blind people had no ability to object if they found the joke objectionable. How patronizing!

As for last week’s story, not one of the letters of complaint said, “As a disabled veteran, I object to….” — or even “As a former soldier, I object….”

The man — and those like him — lost limbs, not the ability to think, to speak, to stand up for themselves (yeah: literally and figuratively!) We have here a soldier who was able to get up a flight of stairs and into a woman’s bedroom after leaving his prosthetic legs downstairs. Do you honestly believe that someone that strong, who has training and experience as a warrior, had no ability to protect himself from an angry man trying to hit him?! Or is it much more likely that he chose not to fight back, because he understood the other man’s anger?

Of course, this wouldn’t be complete without Mike’s comments. He was pretty firm: “As far as I’m concerned, disabled or not the guy’s a disgrace,” Mike replied. “Being a disabled vet means that a severe price was paid, and I do believe it’s important for us to take care of that veteran and provide for what was lost because of that combat experience, but if he wasn’t a vet, the story would’ve just been funny, and maybe the fact that this was a sort of karma against him could’ve been seen easier. Vet status doesn’t give automatic protection against consequences of your actions. And the fact that some people expect that it should shows the damage idiots like this cause. He’s not an idiot because he lost his legs; he’s an idiot because of what he did, and because his vet status has become the primary focus, it reflects on all vets who also served, but live their lives without doing things like this. Being a disabled vet doesn’t give you a free pass from morality. In fact, I’d say most of us combat vets would hold him to an even higher standard because what he does is a reflection on all of us, and it takes away from the honor of what we did.“

The guy in the story did what, exactly? He slept with another man’s wife. Yeah, they were estranged, but they are (or were) still married, and maybe that man was working toward reconciliation. And here’s a guy doing his wife in their marital bed. Military guys are sensitive about things like that: they leave their wives (and, increasingly, husbands) behind to hold down the “home front” while they go fight for the rest of us. They expect their spouses to take care of their homes, not defile them, while they’re gone.

Think, Damn It!

I’ve felt the need lately to say this a lot: “This is True is about thinking first, reacting later (if at all).” We’ve seen many, many examples lately of why that’s a good idea. Yet rather than thinking about who wrote this story, and why they took the tack that they did, or maybe even asking questions, dozens of readers instead reacted without thinking at all. They loved reading hundreds and hundreds of stories, but they come across one that they don’t like, and react by unsubscribing, or whining, instead. And by doing so, they demonstrate that they consider the disabled vet to be not simply legless, but so damaged as to be completely helpless — and in need of someone else to step forward because they cannot speak for themselves. How patronizing.

This isn’t a one-off thing, as the “blind joke” entry shows. Indeed, a few weeks ago, when I pointed out that the fake police car “dash-cam” video damaged the public trust over policing issues (Call Me a Contrarian), I got complaints …well, let me quote one of them:

“I don’t appreciate cheap shots against a police officer and police department trying to bring a little levity into an extremely difficult, and dangerous, profession, and to try to bring more of a human face to the people who work, at great risk, to protect us. While I’m sure you think your comment was cute, it served to paint all police officers as unethical, which is far from the truth. UNSUBSCRIBE ME.” —Bill, New York

Lots of readers are chuckling right now, remembering that (yep!) I used to be a cop. And that’s just one of the reasons I want cops to act more professionally. Or, to paraphrase Mike, “most of us current and former cops hold the police to an even higher standard because what they do is a reflection on all of us, and it takes away from the honor of what we did.“

Oh, and by the way? I’m disabled, too. I can walk only thanks to three surgeries and a year of terribly painful physical therapy. And as you have no doubt seen over the years, I don’t have much difficulty defending myself from attacks by others.

16 Responses to Because They’re Not Capable of Defending Themselves

  1. Brian, Alabama February 16, 2015 at 5:38 pm #

    Am I the only one who wondered how the guy made it up the stairs? I have a couple of ideas but I’m still curious.

    Oh, that was my first question when I read the source story, before sending it to Mike! My serious answer is: strength. -rc

  2. Maurizio, London, UK February 16, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

    Bit surprised by the moralistic tone regarding Private Lawlor. Did he know Gemma was married? Was he expecting a husband to show up? Unlikely, given the choice of leaving the legs downstairs. In any case, when there’s little information it’s not meaningful to step in declaring somebody an “idiot”.

    To me he looks more like a strong man with a strong will and heart, undeterred having lost two out of five limbs 8)

    The estranged husband turning up at 4.30am, he’s more like a dangerous individual who is unfortunately still free.

  3. Dave in IL February 16, 2015 at 6:40 pm #

    Okay, lets see if I got this right. According to the readers you mentioned, once one becomes a veteran, everything they do is morally right, due to their service. Interesting concept.

    Sounds legitimate. -rc

  4. Tom, Decatur, IL February 16, 2015 at 7:17 pm #

    Did Private Lawlor know she was a married woman? If he did, then I agree with Mike, the man is a disgrace. If he didn’t, then the wife is the one at fault. As far as Lawlor having the ability to protect himself, the magistrate said “he was clearly unable to defend himself”, so there may be other injuries the article didn’t mention.

    Then why would he choose to leave his prosthetic legs downstairs? -rc

  5. Jack Blairsville, GA February 16, 2015 at 9:34 pm #

    I have just reread the story and see nothing to indicate that the veteran knew she was married. Is it immoral to go home with a lady from a bar and have intimate relations? If so, I have a feeling many of your readers have suffered that moral lapse. If he knew she was married, then he was definitely wrong. I arrested a prostitute once and learned later that one of her customers was a man who had three prosthetics and could only seem to find female companionship by paying retail for it. Other women were too squeamish.

  6. bandit, Albuquerque February 17, 2015 at 12:12 am #

    First, to get up the stairs, he probably did what I did after breaking a knee. You sit on a stair, back to the UP direction. You then reach for the next stair with your arms, push, and go up a stair (well, I used an arm && leg, but same principle).

    Second: I do think the vet could have defended himself if he wanted to. Just take the other guy to the ground (he is at leg height) and stay on him. I suspect he got cold-cocked (oh — a pun!) and could not fight back.

    I would note there are several good wrestlers without hands and feet, and at least one without arms and legs (it took him, his dad, and a *great* coach to get proficient).

    Third: I do not have a left hand — about 1/2 of a left forearm. (Think about my name, and slot machines.) I *do* have a (ahem) second-hand shop filled with (ahem) [sic] off-handed puns. The thing I find interesting is some people are still hesitant to “hand” me a pun after I use several — mainly to relax them and feel at ease.

    The best one for this story is: I can pass *two* short-arm inspections.

    First, I think by now he’s well-practiced in getting up stairs, if he’s willing to do it without his legs on a “first date,” and is probably quite proficient at it, no matter the method (and yours is certainly plausible.) Second, I doubt if he was …well… cold-cocked: with his training and experience, he’d be on high alert with a potential intruder in the house at that hour. But yes, I certainly agree he could have defended himself. -rc

  7. James, Fairview Heights, IL February 17, 2015 at 8:10 am #

    Maybe fewer paying members complained because most of us vets have a sense of humor and appreciated the tagline. Believe me, we’ve heard far worse from our fellow vets.

    James Lindley, TSgt, USAF Ret.

  8. Greg M - Waukesha WI February 17, 2015 at 9:04 am #

    Well if he has enough game to get laid, I wouldn’t call that unable….

  9. Jim, UK February 17, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    As mentioned by other commentators, there is no evidence whatsoever in this story that the disabled ex serviceman even knew the woman was married. It’s a shame Mike didn’t “think damn it” before attacking him with such a moralistic label.

    I had no problem with the story, nor do I have a problem making jokes that involve people with disabilities.

    I have a big problem with the justification for printing the story being anything to do with talking a moral stand about his conduct. It is irrelevant that Mike is a disabled vet. I would have had no problem with a non disabled vet making the sane joke.

    My problem is with the unnecessary attack on the victim’s integrity and morality. First, where is the evidence and second, who appointed Mike captain of the morality police. A woman is is separated made a decision to be intimate with another man. The husband decided to “check on the dog” at 4:30 am and beats up a man who at a minimum is seriously compromised in his ability to defend himself. . And in this trio, Mike decides to label the victim who was beaten the “disgrace” and an “idiot”.

    I won’t be unsubscribing, it’s just one story. I enjoy This is True and am happy to pay for it. I regularly disagree with positions that you take. ..but on this one I think both Mike and you Randy have handled your response to the complaints badly and made judgements unsupported by the evidence. Perhaps you should “think dammit” yourselves.

    We did, and hope you will too. This is about one soldier commenting on another’s conduct. You want to weigh in on the situation in general? Fine: you just did. But you can’t make a credible comment on the point of view — the “moral standards” of servicemen — without establishing your credentials to do so. Actual career servicemen (e.g., James, just above) have. -rc

  10. Jamie, Texas February 17, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

    Oh, come on! A recently split couple after a “a long-term relationship” and Lawlor can detect no sign of a male presence in the house? Right. OF COURSE he knew she was either married or in a relationship, and OF COURSE it’s fine to make a joke of it no matter if he’s a vet or disabled or a milkman. The context of Mike being a disabled vet himself adds interest, but isn’t needed to appreciate the story. And if not appreciated, then move on to one of the dozen others. Sheesh: so much energy thrown at a simple story! Laugh, or not, and move on! But to whine and question the “justification” for the story, which is simply a response after the fact? Only obliviots do that.

  11. Phil, San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A. February 20, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

    Depending on how much of Private Lawlor’s legs were lost, he may not have been able to just walk up the stairs, even with high-tech prosthetics. A high above-the-knee amputation leaves very little natural leg and muscle to provide the leverage needed for climbing. However, upper-body strength is often more than sufficient to hump one’s way up stairs.

    You just had to use the word “hump,” didn’t you?! -rc

  12. Jim, UK February 21, 2015 at 3:49 am #

    Well, although I don’t think they are relevant, my “credentials” are I am a former serviceman and saw active service in the Falklands War.

  13. Jeff from Georgia February 21, 2015 at 5:43 am #

    I’m not sure that the “moral standards” of servicemen are any different from the “moral standards” of ordinary human beings. But, I only fit one of those categories, so I guess I’ll have to go on wondering what the difference is.

  14. Jonathon, Taiwan February 22, 2015 at 8:59 pm #

    Sometimes, I think I learn more from the give and take on your blog than I do from the stories themselves. Thanks for the great work.

  15. Sandra, Israel February 23, 2015 at 1:45 am #

    I usually find your comments spot on, and even if I disagree, nourishing food for thought. I find it interesting though that you chose not to comment on any of the people who mentioned that Lawlor may not have known she was married. Even if there was indication of a man’s presence in the house, she could have easily explained those, without saying she is only separated from her husband.

    Either way, I don’t find it justifiable for the husband to have hit Lawlor either way. If he didn’t know by then, now he should be certain that the marriage is over.

    I not only commented on it, you went on to paraphrase my comment. One mistake readers are making here: just because Mike chose the direction he did for the tag does not mean the estranged husband is completely blameless. We try not to comment on the patently obvious, but rather look at other angles. I think it goes without saying that the estranged husband’s actions have no merit. -rc

  16. Kent from Georgia February 24, 2015 at 5:12 am #

    Several readers stepped forward because they thought Lawlor couldn’t.

    Heh. Again with the jokes!

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