It is rare for a college student to trigger a national debate with an opinion column in a student newspaper but, to his credit, Oliver Friedfeld, has done precisely that. Friedfeld wrote an op-ed in the Hoya after he was mugged at gunpoint and defended the black youths who robbed him at gunpoint — a column entitled “I Was Mugged, And I Understand Why” that is drawing praise and ridicule across the country.
The senior explained in the column that
“Last weekend, my housemate and I were mugged at gunpoint while walking home from Dupont Circle. The entire incident lasted under a minute, as I was forced to the floor, handed over my phone and was patted down. And yet, when a reporter asked whether I was surprised that this happened in Georgetown, I immediately answered: ‘Not at all.’ It was so clear to me that we live in the most privileged neighborhood within a city [Washington, D.C.] that has historically been, and continues to be, harshly unequal.
The fact that these two kids, who appeared younger than I, have even had to entertain these questions suggests their universes are light years away from mine.”
Friedfeld appears to argue that it is he — and people like him — who have the most explaining to do: “Who am I to stand from my perch of privilege, surrounded by million-dollar homes and paying for a $60,000 education, to condemn these young men as ‘thugs?’ It’s precisely this kind of ‘otherization’ that fuels the problem.”
It is a thought-provoking piece but one with which I have to disagree. I am not sure what value “otherization” has a social theory, but I disagree that “it’s a lot easier for me to choose good than it may be for them.” This was a crime of violence in a city being ravaged by such violence. Indeed, most such crimes occur in improvised neighborhoods. There is a choice that is made for most people before they reach for a gun and victimize others. Friedfeld insists that this is the price that must be paid for our failure as a society:
As young people, we need to devote real energy to solving what are collective challenges. Until we do so, we should get comfortable with sporadic muggings and break-ins. I can hardly blame them. The cards are all in our hands, and we’re not playing them.
While I commend Friedfeld for writing about his views, I find the sentiments expressed to be more moral relativism that has taken hold of our society. Many families in this country faced terrible poverty but did not turn to violent crime. They made a difficult choice that stayed faithful to the most basic tenets of a moral life. To relieve these men of moral responsibility for their act is to discard any notion of personal responsibility and choice.
I strongly condemn those who are attacking Friedfeld. He offers a personal and genuine view of the relative differences between his privileged life and the life of these muggers. Where I disagree with him is not that comparison, but his conclusion. I can see why Friedfeld does not feel victimized (particularly since he was not shot in the encounter), but that does not make these men any less of criminals. In other words, the wealth differential has more relevance to defining his level of victimization than it does excusing their level of criminalization.
Regardless of the merits, Friedfeld certainly produced something positive from the experience in triggering this national debate. While I disagree with him, the column is an effort by a college student to draw meaning out of such an experience.