OK. In this post, at least, I’m not going to get into the sordid details of Joe Trillo’s reported assault of the juvenile Nicholas Mattiello back in 1975. Rather, I think the story, of itself, raises fascinating, important cultural questions: What sort of world do we live in, and what world should we want to live in?
Let’s imagine a scenario that fits the details we know, but that might not be exactly accurate. Thirty-something Joe Trillo is doing some work on his house when he hears some neighborhood pre-teens horsing around on a nearby property. Whether because of the content of their shouts or simple annoyance at their noise, he rages toward the boys, using intemperate language. Among the kids, young Nicholas Mattiello is so obnoxious that even a local cop can’t help but express his belief that he was asking for some sort of retaliation from the grownup, and that retaliation comes in the form of a few whacks on the head with a caulk gun and escalated threats about vehicular assault.
Surrounding this all is the reality that Trillo’s relationship with his adult neighbors was apparently so bad that they wanted police involvement, and even 40 years later, he’s sufficiently hostile as to go after them with accusations of fabricating evidence.
Now I’ll throw in context, as somebody who lived his childhood before The Great Change that separates Gen X from the Millennials: This is kind of how life was. Neighborhoods had blow-hards like the Trillo in the above narrative and punks like the hypothetical young Mattiello. Nobody expected government authorities to moderate every dispute. The contempt of the kids sent a signal to the blow-hards that they were behaving like adolescents, and the relatively mild assertions of adult prerogative (like the caulk gun) taught the kids that there were boundaries to their behavior beyond which a stronger adult might issue a correction.
I recall an incident when I was 10 or 11 while I was hanging around the school playground unsupervised on a Saturday with some kids in my grade. (Yeah, we used to do that sort of thing.) Some kids who were a year or two older than us descended like the bullies in A Christmas Story. The lead bully shared my first name and, that day, also shared my wardrobe item of one of those poofy vests that were in fashion at the time. We younger kids scattered. My classmate, Matt, tried to get away by climbing a six foot chain-link fence, but bully Justin grabbed his legs. As Matt fell down, the sharp points of the fence cut open his arm. (It was no joke, slicing very near to his wrist.)
I had run in the other direction and spent some time wandering around the neighborhoods on that side of the school. When I returned and saw the bullies gone, I let out a little cheer. Seeing my slight celebration, a pair of men came up to me and asked my name. When I told them, one of them picked me up by the collar and started shaking me, shouting. Fortunately, some of the kids who’d run off with Matt were near enough to rush in and tell his father that I wasn’t the culprit.
I went home scared and crying and told my father, but nobody ever gave the impression that Matt’s dad assaulted me. He was, however, conspicuously kind for the rest of my childhood, even when his son and I got into fist fights in middle school.
That’s how things were. We worked them out. Sometimes — apparently, as with the Trillo-Mattiello altercation — the police would be called in, mostly as a warning to a neighbor that things were going out of bounds. As part of that process, the legal system would exercise some judgment, such that charges that might follow a person around for his or her entire life were dismissed if they weren’t too serious and everybody got out of it OK. The idea that such charges would surface some 40 years later in a political campaign — and that people would pay attention to them — would have been laughable.
So, what sort of world do we live in, and what world should we want to live in? It wasn’t perfect, by any stretch, but we used to live in a world in which we shared a community responsibility to guide each other, and people sometimes erred in their judgment about how to do that. So, we included checks, balances, and allowances. The law and social expectations were more like the ropes around a professional wrestling ring than a cage, at least when it came to this smaller interpersonal stuff. Now, it seems that we have a very strict set of rules applied retroactively and subject to change without warning, like a fence of fluctuating and electrified barbed wire.
Again, how we used to do things needed improvement, but I’d say it was closer to the ideal than where we are now. Unfortunately, in this case, Joe Trillo reacted to the story in a way that suggests he’s still the same guy he was back then, and therefore objectionable as a candidate. Voters should take lessons where they find them, but culturally, we need to take lessons, too, and toning down the outrage machine would be a start. Maybe then we can return to being a community.