She rushed up behind me in a whoosh fueled by vengeance. I felt the momentum over my shoulder as I stood at the drugstore counter to make a purchase and turned to see her standing there, the picture of self-righteous indignation. “A guy just left with a whole bunch of baby formula! I followed him outside and told him to put it back, but he wouldn’t listen to me!” Sizzling with agitation on her moral high-ground, this middle-aged, middle-class, outraged woman stood, her frazzled blond hair fanning out, wind-swept, no doubt, by her dash after the perpetrator. Her eyes wide and shiny, her whole being vibrated with excitement, “That’s very sad,” I say, imploring, to the air between her and the young sales clerk who had frozen in place. But neither heard me; I could practically see the words bounce off their heads, unacknowledged. “Just ring me up!” I barked at the clerk, hoping to give the guy a little time for a smooth getaway. But no. The clerk began to spin around in a tight fretful circle and finally called a manager. She repeated what he told her, “There are cameras.” Damn, I thought.
The woman behind me disappeared; maybe to rush back outside to make a citizen’s arrest, or to race home to tell anyone who would listen about her battle with evil. I cursed myself for inaction. Why didn’t I turn fully around, look the accuser in the eyes and say, “It was BABY FORMULA! Who are you protecting? How sad to be so desperate, so destitute that you risk everything to feed your baby! Let it go, give him a break!” But I never think quickly enough; instead I have the “why didn’t I think of that” reproach hours later or in the middle of the night nagging me to wake. Every day we face these moral dilemmas large and small in which arguments can be made on both sides and for which opponents cement themselves in moral certitude. I’m only certain of one thing; if I’d witnessed the baby formula thief in the act, I would have looked him fully in the eyes then turned away as he left, wishing him a silent Godspeed.