When I say nothing at all

Just the other day I was in line at Chick-fil-A getting some breakfast. There were two registers open, but everyone was kind of waiting in one line, going to whichever register came open first (there were only about 5 people in line). A man came in, got in back of the line, and immediately began saying very rude things to the man in front of him, complaining that the man wasn’t picking a line. After a good bit of verbal abuse, the man in front said (in a more polite voice than I would likely have used), “Okay, I’ll just stay in this line (he pointed at the left register).” The man behind him was not satisfied but continued to berate the other, even threatening him with violence.

The young girl who had taken my order (I was waiting on my food) told the man to calm down or she would call the authorities. This did not have a positive impact. Instead the man became incensed and began cursing everyone, yelled something about getting his gun, and then started to walk out. As he got to the door, however, he was confronted by two policemen. They may have been detectives because they were not wearing uniforms, but shirts and ties. Each did have a clearly visible firearm on his belt. They took the man outside and were still talking to him when I left with my food (I took it to go).

Do you know what I said during this dramatic vignette? Nothing. I did not say a word. All of this occurred behind me. I did not even turn around. I saw some of it out of the corner of my eye, and I heard everything very clearly, but I only ever looked at the man as he was heading to the door and met the officers he did not know were present. Until that moment, however, I kept my face forward, studying the menus (even though I had already ordered and know the menu well enough by now that I never read it anyway).

Amy and the kids were waiting in the car for me and were eager to know what all the drama was about (the man and the officers were having quite a conversation still outside). I told them and Amy thought I did the right thing by ignoring it. She thought I would have only made it worse, that nothing could have helped. I’m not so sure. Maybe in this instance she is right. But I worry about the tendency we have as humans to ignore, to look the other way, to remain passive and uninvolved. How many people did this in Nazi Germany? How many did this more recently in Rwanda or in Darfur? How many are doing this now as civil discourse seems to have become a lost art? Are there only screaming voices left because too many of us refuse to speak up?

Of course, this little situation is completely insignificant compared to those. But that does not seem to make me feel better. If I can’t speak peace into a queue squabble at the local CFA, how is more than that possible?

Are there times when we make situations worse, not by what we say, but by our unwillingness to say anything at all?