A debate, not entirely civil, has erupted on my Facebook page over a heart-wrenching incident in Florida. If you’re a regular reader of CNN online you already know about an argument in a movie theatre that left one man dead, his wife wounded, and a retired police officer in jail without bond for pulling the trigger on a man who had refused to stop texting during a movie.
According to published reports, Chad Oulson, 43, met up with his wife for a Monday lunch date and a matinee in Wesley Chapel, Fla. Previews were rolling when he began to send a text—to his three-year-old daughter’s babysitter. Behind him was Curtis Reeves, 71, and his wife. Reeves apparently asked Oulson to stop—how he asked is not clear, but the encounter escalated into an argument and Reeves left to find a manager. When he returned, CNN reports:
The man who had been texting, Chad Oulson, got up and turned to Reeves to ask him if he had gone to tell on him for his texting. Oulson reportedly said, in effect: I was just sending a message to my young daughter. Voices were raised. Popcorn was thrown. And then came something unimaginable — except maybe in a movie. A gun shot.
Oulson died at the scene. The following day, Reeves was arraigned and denied bail. According to the Tampa Tribune, Judge Lynn Tepper found no basis to believe his claim that he was in fear of attack when he shot Oulson—a potential “stand-your-ground” defense under Florida law:
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reported, though, that while Reeves claimed Oulson struck him with an “unknown object,” no such object was found and witnesses did not observe any punches being thrown. Oulson did throw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, the sheriff’s office reported.
The central question this tragedy has raised among my circle is the degree to which the victim contributed to the altercation—and to his own demise—by texting in the theatre and getting into an argument when asked to stop. To me, the bigger question is what this horrible incident says about the lies being peddled by the gun lobby, which pushes all guns, all the time—that an armed society is a polite society, that more guns means we are all safer, that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. This kind of escalation is not rare, but it seldom involves a respected former member of law enforcement.
I’ll address the etiquette question first, however, because among some theatre people I know, the use of cellphones during performances inspires an almost atomic level of rage—to the point that it almost becomes a public safety issue in itself. This incident has inflamed some of those passions. Online I’ve seen cruel jokes about Chad Oulson’s death, and in recent discussions, I’ve been startled to discover how much anger has been reserved for the victim.
The argument I’ve heard goes like this: Both men were wrong. And even if Reeves’ reaction was over-the-top, that doesn’t make Oulson’s behavior right. My initial response to that statement was astonishment. And it was hard to offer reasoned reaction. But having thought about it, I have this to say: “Wrong” is not a uniform concept when it comes to degree or gravity. Yes, we can agree that texting during a show is wrong. We can agree that shooting a guy in the chest is wrong. Both of these things are wrong, but they are wrong in utterly different ways and in different spheres. One is a breach of etiquette; the other is a criminal act. So they aren’t even in the same universe of wrong, and to demand that we recognize Oulson’s wrong behavior and consider it a provocation for Reeves’ wrong behavior reveals a strangely twisted sense of proportion and causality. Even if you argue that Oulson’s share of the blame is relatively small, it still ignores the fact that etiquette and public safety are two completely different arenas of life, governed by completely different considerations. They intersect only at the point where bad manners become so extreme that they cross over into criminal behavior. Which is pretty much what happened here—except that it was Reeves, not Oulson, who crossed that line.