I have been working with the London Metropolitan Police to reduce alcohol-involved violence. After I gave a talk with Deputy Mayor Malthouse at the London Drug and Alcohol Policy Forum, the organizers very thoughtfully gave me this gift from the archives. These truncheons were carried by bobbies from the Victorian Era until about 15 years ago, when they were replaced with folding batons.
Beyond the fact that it will be useful at the next meeting of the faculty senate, I appreciate the truncheon as a reminder of what travel can teach us. After the forum, a friendly former beat cop took me around some of his old haunts and then for a pint. I asked him if he had ever carried a gun. Bugging his eyes out for effect he said “A gun? Why, they’re dangerous.” I think many Americans would be shocked to realize that in such a large city, the police keep order while rarely using firearms. When I learned this myself as a visiting college student I realized with sadness how much I accepted as a fact of life that all big cities are violent (Detroit was the first big city I knew well) and that police needed guns to fight crime.
Japan, now in such a terrible state, provided me a similar lesson 25 years ago. Tokyo taught me that not only could an enormous city be absurdly safe, but it could also be clean as a whistle and find shelter for everyone who would otherwise be homeless. Due to the jet lag I got in the habit of taking long, desultory walks at 2am, something I would never have done in New York or Chicago. The only time I felt threatened was when I met another American. We briefly considered having a knife fight as a tribute to our country, but decided instead to simply nod at each other, smile, and move on just as would the locals.
I also will never forget my girlfriend in Oslo who literally did not understand the concept that a woman would avoid certain places at certain times of night to avoid sexual assault, or that American women would accept living in such fear.
Some people cannot afford foreign travel — I recognize that I have been blessed. But when I think of all the Americans who can afford it but do not even own a passport, I see a missed opportunity. It is not that exposure to other cultures necessarily makes one feel that one’s own is worse, but travel gives unparalleled insight into how many choices masquerade as inexorable conditions of life.