The Barbarian and The 711 Clerk

It was at the tail end of a long shift at 7-11, getting close to midnight. Business had been brisk all day but now there was only the customers going on beer runs and the night shift grabbing coffee and donuts. I manned my till, smiled at people by reflex, and swept every so often.

A man with a hoodie, glasses, and a dark green jacket approached the counter. As I started my spiel, he shocked me out of my autopilot by pulling a black handgun from his coat pocket, leveling it at my chest, and then stating his intention to rob the place.

“I see,” I said. “This is highly irregular.”

“It is,” he agreed. “Yet here we are.”

“I suppose you’ve given no thought to the long term viability of your chosen profession? Armed robbery is a notoriously unstable field. The cash in this register looks like a lot, if you grew up with little, but a simple cost benefit analysis will show clearly that the money here is almost comically small compared to the risks one must take to, well, take it. The possibility of arrest, being tackled by a bystander, the small but worrying possibility that I too have a concealed firearm about my person... sure, each individual robbery seems like a slam dunk, but in aggregate the risks are appalling and the payoff is almost the same as a 9 to 5 job. Imagine, if you will, a game of chance at a casino. You must place $200 on the table to play. The dealer takes a deck of cards and draws one at random. If it is any card other than the Ace of Spades, you the gambler earn $1. But if the Ace of Spades is drawn, you lose your $200 stake.

“Obviously,” I continued, “on any given draw you are likely to win a dollar. But in the long run, the house always wins- 1 in 52 draws will ruin you, so for every $51 you win, you have to pay $200. It is a fool’s game you are playing.”

“We are of an accord,” he said. “I am no mere thug who draws a weapon without thought. I am a man of action, but action must include forethought.

“The risks that armed robbers assume are high, as you say. But risks can be compensated for. I have cased this shop for a week- I am familiar with every route in and out. My car is parked the ideal distance away- close enough that I can get to it rapidly, far enough away that no camera can see or witness tie me to it. The camera will not show much with this hoodie and fake glasses. I specifically targeted you here because I live several towns over, so investigating cops will not patrol my own streets. And as long as I do not kill you, this remains a robbery, not a murder. Police budget is tight this fiscal year- criminal investigations must be prioritized.

“A gamble I am taking, to be sure,” said the gunman. “But a calculated one. The odds are much more favorable than your posited 52 to 200. I have adjusted them in my favor, and so roll the dice gladly.”

I nodded. “Impressive.”

“Thank you.”

“If appeals to practical costs avail nothing, let me try a new line of attack. Many people think their thievery is directed at some faceless corporation, and therefore bypasses the standard morality of ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ On the surface, perhaps; the store has an insurance policy that covers shoplifting and vandals and robbers. The money stolen from the till will indeed be replaced by a faceless insurance company a day or two after my boss fills out the paperwork. But the simple fact is that the insurance company charges a premium for its services- that cost to doing business is passed on to the consumer by way of pricing. Those bags of candy and the energy drinks in the cooler and the peanuts and the muffins and the ice cream and the beer and the chips and the sodas and the apples and the Advil and the coffee and the Mac ‘n’ Cheese bowls are all expensive as fuck. The mark ups around here are staggering. They have to be. Individuals like yourself force the high pricing to compensate for the premium; just as you have proactively adjusted the odds in your favor, so too do the insurance men. You are not stealing from me, you are not stealing from my boss, and you are not stealing from the 7-11 company, or the insurance agency for that. You are stealing from your fellow citizens. Would you not rather point that gun at an old lady as she walks down the street? Would you be willing to rob a hardworking family man who needs food stamps to get by? Would it not be easier to threaten a child of eight for his pocket change?”

“In a word, yes,” said the gunman. “I am aware that I am exploiting society as a whole, and not merely one tiny little subsection of it. But you have not considered carefully enough the structure of the world.

“Remember the great Libertarian doctrine that taxation is theft. Therefore, in mathematical certainty, theft is also taxation. Now, you apparently acknowledge the right of the government to steal your money- I suspect you are not plotting anarchist revolution in your spare time. So what line can you draw in the sand between me and the IRS?

“That question is rhetorical and easily countered, of course. I am not the government. But the line is drawn because of scale, not of type. Refusal to pay taxes will, eventually and with enough lines crossed, result in armed men visiting your home to take you to prison. I at least am upfront about my coercion. That upfrontness costs me badly, for I have no ‘legitimacy’ per se. The closest historical parallel may be this. Under the Byzantine empire, serfs- which is the closest label the situation has to wageslaves such as yourself, no offense- paid taxes to the Augustus, and considered it to be approximately dead center of the Overton Window. The Byzantines had royal pomp, army after army of soldiers to collect the taxes, centuries of tradition and shared culture bolstering them, and most importantly of all, an obligation to organize and fund large scale civic projects to the benefits of the taxed peasants.”

“I was about to say,” I interjected. “You beat me to it. ‘No taxation without representation’ was going to be how I would have phrased it, for the government spends the money to the communal good, in theory, and I get a small say in how and where.”

“I could easily challenge that,” said the gunman with a sardonic smile. “If representative democracy indeed dead in the water, what responsibilities have we to preserve the interests of the government?”

“A recognition that the government and society are distinct, and that wanton crime harms the second even worse than the first? Honestly. This seems like self-justifying sophistry on your part.”

The gunman shrugged. “It is what it is. To get back to the Byzantine metaphor. The peasant, i.e. you, does not do more than grumble when the tax collector comes, for the tax collect has that mystical property of legitimacy. But there is another faction in the world- the Mongol, the Goth, the Vandal, the barbarian from outside the known world who deals in raw violence. The barbarian holds a sword in his hand-“ and here the gunman wiggled his handgun suggestively- “and demands gold. The barbarian lacks legitimacy, to be sure, but one can hardly argue that his position is without merit.”

“At least one of us is deeply confused,” I said. “You seem to be justifying yourself by the savage and inhuman doctrine of Might Makes Right. Yet you claim to be in the right by equating your barbarism (your word, not mine) with a legitimate system of government whose very cornerstone is that Might Does Not Make Right.”

“You miss a vital piece of the puzzle, which is this: society is not on my side. That ‘legitimate system of government’ representing me and my community does not work to my prosperity. I have sworn no metaphorical oaths of allegiance to the Augustus, and I have sworn no literal oaths of allegiance to the system of government in the here and now. I deny the very concept that the Law is holy and must be obeyed for the common good, for the common good is none of mine. Imagine, if you will, standing before the Heavenly throne as a fresh soul that has never touched flesh before. God says to you, ‘Look, I’m going to send you on down there for a lifetime until you come back to me. You get a choice- you can either be a peasant who works 14 hour days and lives in a mud hut and will be abused and exploited every day of his life, or you can be a one of the Mongol horse archers who lives and dies by the sword. What’s your poison?’ I happen to find myself (quite inadvertently, for I did not as a child dream of a career as an armed robber) in such a position. Who could blame such a soul for choosing the sword instead of the plow?”

“Me,” I said. “I can blame you. I hate working for a living too. But I’m behind this counter trading time and energy for cash, and the society that gave birth to me, raised me, protected me, and will one day bury me is slightly better for it. Every impulse towards civilization starts with people like me plugging away at it and contributing to the present and the future, in a spirit of thankfulness for the past.”

“Admirable,” said the gunman. “I for one would rather cut off my right hand than to gainsay a man such as you in your lifelong devotion to civic virtue. But I won’t. You shall go your way, and me mine, and we shall both be content.”

“Shall we? Shall we truly both be content? Should a cancer patient try to live and let live with the tumor inside him? Shall a lifeboat of marooned sailors agree to disagree with the man who steals the rationed food and water while the others endure with little? Can there truly be anything but war between us- war in the abstract and at a remove, to be sure, but war nonetheless? Those Mongols and Vandals you invoked were met by force of arms, if you’ll recall.”

“Society is specialized and stratified- I’m sure you know the old rhyme. ‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man-‘ “

“ ‘Thief.’ Yes, I’m familiar with it. You’re saying that society can tolerate bad actors to a degree.”

“You have a pretty firm alliance with the bacteria in your stomach, I will say that. That alliance would be imposed by the little wrigglers even if they didn’t contribute to the body as a whole. It seems to work out for everyone. And we’ve already covered how and why I’m willing to try my luck against the specialized profession that is designed to counter me. Society through the government has imposed its prohibitions and laid out its enforcement mechanism; it has done its job. If I can successfully navigate my way to profit through the tangled web of both the rule and the enforcers, well, more power to me. If you think otherwise, then may I ask why you do not descend upon the lawless life-stealers of Wall Street with fire and sword? One white collar guy playing jump rope with the law can wipe out the life savings of hundreds and thousands of families with a click of a mouse.”

I considered this thoughtfully. “I assume there is no point in pitching you the idea of meaningful education and gainful employment as surer paths to success than armed robbery.”

“I already weighed such options. The problem is that I’m good at plotting methods to attack people and places, and I’m good with guns. Hence why I’m here. Like my old man would say, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

The gunman sighed. “Earlier, you accused me of sophistry. I’m afraid that is basically accurate. All the rhetoric followed after the impulse. And the impulse is as simple as any other great truth around which a life can revolve. That truth is this- I am a man. I was designed by God or by nature to stand tall, to own a permanent and invulnerable home, to set my life as I see fit, and to enjoy the fruit of my own labor. I was meant to join with likeminded folk in a spirit of camaraderie and community and to take no abuse from anyone. I am a man. I was supposed to build, to fix what was passed down to me, to fight in defense of everything that is valuable and irreplaceable.

“And I can’t. It just isn’t an option anymore. My work is done for the profit of others. The egalitarian spirit that all men are created equal- not in ability, but in worth- has been denied and sneered at for too long. The sanctity of my home has been violated; can not the police shatter my door and shoot my dog as they see fit? Even the simple assertion that a man must fight a bully has been barred by law, for honest fights in defense of self-worth and self-esteem have been banned, even as the law had banned the perverse aristocratic imitation of dueling. Were a man to spit on me and call me a faggot or a nigger or a dumb fucking chink or a retard or a sister-fucker, and I was to break his nose for the insult, the police would crackdown on me and ruin my life with an assault charge. It is too late to fight for that which is valuable and irreplaceable; that fight is over and my side lost. How can a free man with pride exist under such conditions? How can a tree grow from salted soil?

“I am a man, and I will not be a slave. I am undoubtedly better off than a slave in chains, but a slave to circumstance is still not free. Well, I will live as a warrior before kneeling as a serf. The savage liberty of the barbarian at the gates is a pale imitation of the free man in a just and democratic society, but I will take the imitation since it’s all that is left for me. If I seize not the gun, I will live for decades as a servant to ‘better’ men; and I shall not.

“If I fall into foolish logic puzzles and contradictions trying to turn this impulse into words, so be it. The impulse remains nonetheless.”

I nodded. “Tell you what-“

I grabbed a receipt someone had left behind before the gunman showed up at my store and scribbled some numbers on it, hiding my writing from him. I stuffed the number in my pocket.

“The register doesn’t open without this number. I absolutely refuse to open the till for you, but if you gun me down, you can grab that note and open it yourself.”

“I could beat you up and just take the note without killing you, perhaps? If I shoot you, well, that impacts my odds of capture.”

“Yes,” I said, “but I have a box cutter here that I use to break down cardboard in the back. I don’t know if I can win, but I can make you kill me to avoid getting slashed up. I assume you would not want drops of your blood at the crime scene.”

“Very true. And I appreciate the sporting gesture of writing the number down.”

“So here we are. You want the money, which I estimate to be about $1,200 between the two registers, you need to shed blood.”

The silence hung heavy over everything else. My chest was tight and my breathing was shallow. The gunman held his gun at a forty five degree angle aimed at the counter between us, and it wavered up and down slightly, as though he was trying to decide whether or not to kill me.

“I’m honestly not clear what your angle here is,” he said. “This is contrary to store policy, surely; you’re supposed to just give me the money.”

“My angle is the same as yours, really. I too am a man, and I too chafe under the modern destruction of liberty. And I too yearn to fight in a holy crusade in defense of all that is valuable and irreplaceable. Today, that means I’m going to make you kill me. That’s what civilized men do when the barbarians are at the gate. You aren’t an idiot, you know damn well that if you carry that gun into enough shoppettes eventually you’ll have to kill someone. You appear to have accepted the possibility. Well, it’s no mere possibility now. You want the money, kill me. Smell the gunpowder in the air, feel the gunshot ring your ears, see the dark blood pool under me spread and spread and spread. Feel your hands shake as the enormity of what you’ve done sinks in. Motherfucker, I am a man, and you don’t get to rob my store without paying the price for it.”

The gunman stared hard into my eyes, and myself not being a poker player at all I could not read the intent. “I don’t really have to, do I? There are other stores. Hell, I can come back tomorrow and see if whoever is on shift then has less spine. My plan is still basically sound.”

“Pure cowardice. If you aren’t willing to be a proper Mongol and commit to barbarism, you have no business pretending you are a barbarian. If you refuse to kill me tonight, what do you intend to do in a month when someone tries to tackle you from behind mid-robbery? Stop being a little bitch and either open fire or get the fuck out of my store.

He raised the gun in one smooth motion, leveling it in my face just far enough away that I could not lunge forward to try to grab it. He said something, but I didn’t hear it. I was staring at the muzzle too hard.

When he left, I don’t think he was truly any happier than he was before.