As the elections last year proved vividly, America is a collection of political and social constituencies who often behave as if they can't stand one another. Fortunately, the sheer size of the country helps diffuse some of the ambient antagonism that has existed throughout our history. Putting distance between adversaries always reduces the potential for conflict.
Conversely, squeezing people together can have a catalyzing effect on the slightest spark of anger. Road rage is the most obvious example, but human relations may go haywire in any venue, even when conditions seem quite harmonious.
Last November, my family and I were standing in the Maui airport, relaxed and refreshed after a brief tropical getaway. The departures to Honolulu take off about every 20 minutes, so visitors seldom feel stressed about missing their connections to the mainland. In my peaceful state of mind, I began to hum the lilting "Tiny Bubbles."
I noticed two men waiting to board the flight ahead of us, middle-aged guys wearing aloha shirts. (I also bought an aloha shirt, but am keeping it tucked away so that in 50 years, when Social Security and all other government safety nets are bankrupt, my daughter can sell it to a collector for a huge amount of cash and retire with financial security.)
An agent announced the boarding call, and passengers began to stroll through the gate. Then, after a few seconds, I heard a commotion in the tunnel leading to the plane, and someone yelled, "Call security! Now!"
Official personnel swooped in from all directions, and a moment later the two guys in aloha shirts emerged from the tunnel, looking like they had been roughed up.
Yes, in the middle of paradise, two seemingly innocent bystanders decided it was time to perform their own version of "Fight Club." Police took down their statements, but we never found out what provoked the incident.
In retrospect, I keep thinking of a line from "Chinatown," near the end of the movie when Jack Nicholson (as J.J. Gittes) confronts John Huston (Noah Cross) about his scandalous personal and professional transgressions. Huston just shrugs and says, "You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact ... the right time, the right place, they're capable of anything."
I realize it's tough to keep trouble at a distance when you never know where it's lurking. So what else is new? My rules for safer conduct along the road of daily life are simple: Don't tailgate. Never argue with strangers. Reject confrontation. And if you're caught in a volatile situation, do whatever it takes to remain calm. Breathe deeply. Count to 10. Visualize Don Ho.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor