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Civil Society and My Knife

February 15, 2016

Civil Society, Voluntarism

Civil Society

I love my knife, a small enough folder to be legal in most states, vicious enough to be used in self-defense, practical enough to be used for everyday cutting tasks, and strong enough to last forever. It goes with me most places and that was the problem. My daughter and I had just finished an east coast college tour and we were returning home from Washington Dulles airport. With luggage checked I had just removed my shoes to go through security when I realized that my folder was still clipped inside my trouser pocket. I immediately informed the TSA minion and asked whether there was a mailing service at the airport so I could send the knife home. “No mailing service”, he replied, smiling appreciatively at the knife. “Your only choices are to give it to me or to throw it away in the garbage can.” Putting my shoes back on, I backed guiltily out of the security line amid curious glances.

No way that TSA Nazi was going to get my knife, I thought. It would be better to give it to a stranger…or would it? I imagined approaching any one of the hundreds of people I could see moving about the airport. Given the current security situation would any of them appreciate being offered a deadly weapon at an airport, even if was free and valuable? I imagined being arraigned in court on anti-terrorism charges and watching myself on surveillance videos, bearing down on complete strangers with a knife in my hand. No, this wasn’t going to work. I held the folded knife over the top of the garbage can with moistening eyes. There was no alternative, or was there? All my life I’ve believed in the virtues of civil society, individuals and organizations working independently of the government. Leave people alone to voluntarily work out solutions to their problems and in most cases they will come up with more effective ones than those imposed by top-down governments.

I exited the airport and approached a silver-haired driver of an SUV who had just dropped off a young couple. “Hello”, I said explaining the situation as succinctly as I could.  “If you could just mail the knife to this address I would be very grateful. Here’s forty dollars to cover the postage costs,” I said, trying to look as trustworthy as possible. “I’ll mail the knife for you”, he replied “but I’m not going to accept any money”. “But I want to make sure you’re not out-of-pocket”, I insisted. “No, I won’t take any money from you but I will promise to return your knife”, the stranger said in a tone that did not invite further discussion. I handed over the knife, thanked him once again and we both shook hands. When I was reunited again with my daughter inside the airport, I remarked that I was one hundred percent confident that the stranger would do as he promised. Two days later, I received a small professionally packed parcel containing my knife swaddled in a mile of bubble wrap. There was a business return address but no name. I called the business and left an innocuous thank you message in the general mailbox. Needless to say, my faith in civil society is as strong as ever.

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“Manners are the basic building blocks of civil society.” Alexander McCall Smith

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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56 Comments on “Civil Society and My Knife”

  1. aaforringer Says:

    Showed up at the airport with my daypack, went thru security discovered my agency issued collapsible baton was in the bag from the day before. TSA goons, no exceptions even for LEO. Left bought a small piece of luggage, put only the baton in the bag, checked the bag, luckily it got to LAX the same time I did.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Ah, a man who does not believe in trust despite the fact that billions of dollars of business are transacted each year based on nothing more than a handshake. When you walk down the street and are not afraid is it really because you think there is a policeman at every corner or because you have reason to trust the area and people who live and work there?

      Reply

      • Mikels Skele Says:

        If you want to test civil society, walk down the street someplace where there are no police. And you selected a nice-looking man in a responsible-looking SUV. On this rare occasion, I’m with Reagan. To paraphrase: trust but keep your hand on your wallet.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Mikels, you seem to be under the illusion that I believe that everyone is naturally good and kind and that civil society depends on this assumption to work. Nothing could be further from the truth. When people live together in society, disputes inevitably arise. There are only two ways to resolve these disputes; violently or peacefully. Because violence has high costs and produces unpredictable results, human beings naturally seek peaceful alternatives. Those of us residing in the US or any of the formerly British Commonwealth countries live under rules, very few of which were created by government. Currently, common law is associated with ‘judge-made’ law but for most of the formative period of the common law, however, judges did not make the law, but merely presided over proceedings where disputes were resolved voluntarily according to the accepted principles of customary law. I covered the subject of ‘Private Law’ in another post here.

        • Mikels Skele Says:

          Thanks for your clarification. Believe it or not, I actually agree, now that I know better what your position is. 😉

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          You agree with me again. What is the world coming to 🙂

  2. The Coastal Crone Says:

    Yes! Civil society is not dead. There should be a better way for situations like this. The last time Husband and I flew I had to throw away a perfectly good wine corkscrew! I used to carry a small knife in my make-up bag but learned to leave it at home when traveling. Glad your story had a happy ending!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “There should be a better way for situations like this.”

      Where there’s a complaint there’s money to be made. We should design a special mailbox together with packing materials and self-mailers like Fedex and negotiate to have them installed at every airport with standardized postage rates based on weight and destination.

      Reply

  3. insanitybytes22 Says:

    Ha! That’s a great story. Long ago before we had heightened security, we went on a fishing trip to Alaska. My husband sailed right through security with an assortment of scary filet knives. I got caught. They found this tiny pair of rose clippers in the bottom of my purse, about the size of finger nail clippers. I have no idea what they thought I was going to do with them, but I handed them over and proceeded to get on the plane with the well armed barbarian.

    Reply

  4. Mike Says:

    On my way home from Purdue one Spring semester approaching Lincoln, Nebr. on the California Zephyr the fellow I had been talking with since Chicago said, “You’re not going to believe me but I’m getting off in Lincoln and I don’t have money for a taxi home.” He asked me if I could lend him 20 bucks and said he would mail me a check as soon as he got home. He was right. I didn’t believe him but still having a little farm boy dew behind the ears I gave him a $20 bill and my address. About a week later darned if it didn’t show up, a check for $20 from this fellow. Whenever I need a little renewal of my faith in humanity I think of this man.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Mike, that’s also a heartwarming story. I think we have all been taken in at some time or another so, as you say, it restores our faith in human nature when our trust is found to be merited. I also think that the more positive experiences we have like this the more we are willing to extend our trust beyond the normal limits and consequently the more trustworthy and desirable the area in which we live and work becomes.

      Reply

  5. Cindy Bruchman Says:

    Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I reckon there wasn’t anything to lose other than the $40 bucks. It was a good sign the man declined; Personally, I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers 😉

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Cindy. I think I would have felt better if he had taken the money as it would have placed him under an obligation. However, what convinced me that he would do as he said, was his direct manner, open expression, clear promise and firm handshake. Only a politician could pull those things together so quickly with the aim to defraud.

      Reply

  6. Aquileana Says:

    It is an interesting anecdote … with many layers to analyze …
    The measure taken seems a little bit off place, I am with you in that point…
    I understand that our world has become a rough place since S11 but… I still believe that you should be able to carry a knife with you … It seems quite harmless, don’t you think?…
    You were lucky to find that man… His gesture was kind indeed… Besides I believe he did so because he felt that they were being unfair with you… even from a legal-constitutional point of view… I am sure he could recognize the lack of proportion of the action which seemed to collide against your own rights…
    Sending best wishes, dear Malcolm… Aquileana 😉

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Aquileana. Actually I do think knives are dangerous but I believe it should be up to the airlines, not a government bureaucracy, to determine whether potentially dangerous items should be allowed on planes. Sometimes dangerous items make places safer. In the U.S. we often hear of mass shootings in schools, which are gun-free zones, so everyone is helpless faced with an armed assailant. However, I have never heard of a mass shooting in a police station where the armed assailant would be killed immediately.

      Reply

  7. john flanagan Says:

    An excellent sharing, Malcolm, i enjoyed every moment.
    Thank You for this.

    Best Wishes

    john

    Reply

  8. matt Says:

    Opposition to tyranny takes many forms…

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Great point Matt. We tend to think of resistance to tyranny only in terms of armed or violent resistance but historically resistance has included petitions, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, gestures, dress, speech, poaching, squatting, desertion, foot-dragging, rituals, carnivals, gossip, humor, imagery etc. The TSA Nazi said there were only two options but he lied, and finding another option contributes to undermining the system of coercion.

      Reply

      • matt Says:

        The way the die is cast against the Public by the Tyrants, nearly any act of kindness qualifies. In this case, though, it’s even better because the TSA is particularly ineffective in its stated mission, as well as being a Blueshirted Icon of the Jackbooted Thugs on our necks.

        I’m glad you got to eat your cake and have it too.

        Reply

  9. cattalespress Says:

    What a GREAT story Malcolm; incidents like these DO restore your faith! One day, I’ll have to fill you in on the details about a bunch of airport officials who surrounded an 80-year-old with a knife, very similar to yours, also in her possession. Of course, to her dismay, they took it from her! She was my mother!!! Too bad.

    Reply

  10. Dalo 2013 Says:

    The little pieces of humanity that can find its way through a lifetime are to be treasured. This story made me feel very good, and I think whoever sent you your knife likely felt great as well ~ doing something genuine. I had a similar issue years ago while walking into a Federal building in Seattle…a pocket knife my father had given me. The guard said he couldn’t hold it but recommended I hide it in a flower pot under his watch. Perfect.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Dalo, I agree that they must have felt good about themselves and deservedly so. I know I would have if the shoe had been on the other foot. As to the story about your knife, it’s wonderful. Those little acts of resistance like this one or the ones I listed in my reply to Matt, make all the difference. By bending the rules the guard showed his humanity. If I have to be oppressed I would rather be living in Italy than in Germany 🙂

      Reply

  11. dgkaye Says:

    What a fantastic idea Malcolm, and such chutzpah. With all the eyes on us everywhere, I would have been afraid they’d follow me right out the airport from exiting security. You lucked into the right person who certainly understood the craziness of rules at the airport and respected your request. Nice to hear happy endings and civil society prevailing. 🙂

    Reply

  12. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    Interesting how things that once might have been considered everyday, as tools perhaps, are now weapons. It makes the world seem more dangerous, but stories like the man who returned the life reminds you that there are still trust-worthy people.

    Reply

  13. rung2diotimasladder Says:

    I can’t believe they didn’t have a way for you to mail it back to yourself. That’s strange.

    Great story! I don’t know what I’d think if someone came to me with a knife and asked me to mail it to him. I’m not sure I’d do it, just out of fear that I was doing the wrong thing somehow.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Don’t you think that your reaction might depend on your evaluation of the individual and whether or not they appeared genuine and trustworthy? What about all those movies where the good guy is running from the police and yet is still sheltered by someone who doesn’t know them but who has have made a snap judgement about the situation?

      Reply

      • rung2diotimasladder Says:

        That would definitely play a role. And I’m sure you don’t look like a bad guy, so I’d probably be inclined to at least listen to your request. But on the other hand, all the stuff about airport security would put me in an awkward position. I’d want to help, but I’d wonder if this would end up causing some unforeseen problem, or if I was breaking some regulation and would get into trouble. I can see why the guy wouldn’t take the money…that would feel a bit like buying a knife, or at least I’d be worried that’s what it looked like.

        Reply

  14. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    Been a while, MG. I hope this day finds you well, doing something extra fun perhaps. I love that you thought on your feet as you did, and am so glad your judge of his character proved true. That would’ve been beyond disappointing for you to lose your knife.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you HW. I actually celebrated a few days earlier on the 18th. Your comment goes to the nub of the post. I do consider myself a good judge of character and if I had been wrong on this occasion I would have been more disappointed with myself than anyone else.

      Reply

  15. Stiiv Says:

    You Malcolm, are probably alone amongst my friends in carrying a defensive weopon, or even thinking of doing so. Yet your wit is undoubtably sharper than the steel you carry. A woman whose daughter had been killed by a stranger once shared with me her surprise rejoinder for use when threatened: “Don’t I know your mother?” I have only once been threatened with knives – in the US, and although I didn’t retaliate, I regret I wasn’t quick witted enough to say something disarming. Have you any advice from your cerebral armoury for a man like me who is non-violent by conviction and temperament, or should I just get myself a knife?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Stiiv, well said. Cerebral armor (I love that phrase) should always be the first line of defense. Police and military in this country use the Color Code of Mental Awareness. I reference it in this post but you can google the subject for a more extensive discussion. The Color Code of Mental Awareness definitely works and if you remain in Code Yellow you will probably never get into a situation where any other action is called for. However, the fact that a non-violent person like yourself was threatened by an assailant with a knife shows that there may be a time when self-defense is the only option open to you and then it definitely makes sense to be prepared. I’m not sure what you will make of the following post where I argued that the Founding Fathers believed that character was built at the point of a gun 🙂

      Reply

  16. L. Marie Says:

    What a wonderful story, Malcolm. So glad your knife was returned by a kind individual. I lost a small Swiss Army knife at the airport, having forgotten it was in my purse. 😦 I have a throwing knife I wouldn’t want to lose.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Apologies L. Marie. How could I have overlooked this comment? A throwing knife! There’s a woman I would not want to mess with. Do you know how to use it? Don’t answer that question as I would not want anyone to get the wrong idea in this politically correct world of ours. As to your Swiss Army knife I wonder where all these confiscated knives end up. Do they just give them to TSA employees, turn them into ploughshares or what?

      Reply

  17. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    What a great story; good to know help is on hand when it is needed. I find that strangers can often be the most helpful and trustworthy. I have never been more thankful of them, whenever I have broken down in my car! I always adopt the ethos; never say no to trying to help another, think if it was you requiring the help. Thanks for posting Malcolm.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Bex, thank you. It’s good hearing from you again. The ripples of both good and bad deeds spread out far and wide. I’m a great believer that the wheel always comes around a full circle.

      Reply

  18. Tahira Says:

    There is plenty of good in this world. This is just one example, Malcolm. Thank you for sharing. I believe if I were the stranger you handed the knife to I would of mailed it back to you. But then I ask myself, would I? I have found it is so hard to answer these kinds of questions until actually in that situation. I believe we all WANT to do the right thing, but doing the right thing is not always the easy thing. Your post reaffirms my belief in humanity (and at the same time in myself.) 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “but doing the right thing is not always the easy thing.”

      Thank you Tahira. Exactly right, but if doing the right thing was always easy I’m not sure we would have much of a clear idea of the distinction between right and wrong.

      Of course it’s also the case that it may not be clear what is the right thing to do. It is one thing to be convinced you are genuinely helping someone but know that you are also risking being wrongly implicated in a crime as a result of your actions. It is another thing to be unclear at the outset whether you are helping the good guy or the bad guy. I suppose the bottom line is that it all comes down to one values and being able to trust one’s judgment.

      Reply

  19. Gregoryno6 Says:

    Reblogged this on The mind is an unexplored country. and commented:
    Just a reminder: you are not entirely surrounded by dickheads.

    Reply

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