COLUMN: Presumption of guilt brings out the worst

My softball team has had its share of undignified moments.

In the 10 years we’ve been together, we’ve done our fair share of obnoxious – some might stay stupid – things.

We’ve started team-related chants at tournaments that have driven other teams to distraction. We’ve been in a few fights on the field (which, to be fair, were not started by us). We’ve been in beer-garden arguments, we’ve yelled at umpires, yelled at other teams. Yelled at each other.

Granted, most of that stuff happened near the beginning of our reign of slo-pitch terror, when we were younger and more hotheaded. But still, our track record isn’t great.

Which brings me to last week, when we waded into a realm of jerkdom that even I didn’t think possible.

But – and this is important – it wasn’t our fault, and certainly not our intention. Honest.

We were in the middle of a game. Some of my teammates’ young children – the oldest is five – were playing at the adjacent playground, a few yards away.

Suddenly, my friend – mother of two of the aforementioned kids – noticed a man standing nearby the playground, who appeared to be talking to the children. We had no idea how long he’d been here, or what he was doing.

Within seconds she, plus a few other teammates, wandered over, and questioned the guy about what he was doing, alone, in a park, near kids who weren’t his.

He could’ve been there for any number of reasons. Maybe he was just passing through, and said hello to be friendly. Maybe one of the kids said hi to him first, and he merely answered. Or maybe he wasn’t talking at all.

But the problem with questioning someone in that situation – no matter how polite, no matter your intentions or tone – is that you are inherently accusing them of something. They are guilty until proven innocent, as soon as you ask them for an explanation.

His response, of course, reflected that.

“I don’t have to explain myself to you. Why don’t you shut up?” he blurted out.

Not the best way to diffuse a situation. But my reaction might’ve been similar, had I been in his shoes.

Soon, as you might expect, things got angrier on both sides until the man eventually said why he was actually there: to water a memorial tree, which had just been planted nearby. (Gulp.)

For his young grandson who had died. (Double gulp.)

Ever the skeptics, one of our number wandered over to the small tree in question to see any sign of a memorial. And there it was. A small plaque.

Things calmed quickly after that. We returned to our game, the man to his tree. When he left, someone told us later, he was near tears.

Now, at this point, there’s not too many ways to swing this to make us look good. Basically, we confronted a grieving grandfather for, well… nothing, as it turns out.

The thing is, I don’t fault my friend for what she did. Nor would I blame any parent who’d acted in a similar manner. Maybe she panicked, but she did so with the best interests of her children at heart.

No one can blame her for that.

These days, the world can be a pretty scary place. Children go missing. Women are assaulted – take, for example, two recent cases on the Semiahmoo Peninsula. Sexual predators are in our communities – some made known to us, some not – whether we like it or not.

So no, you really can’t be too careful.

I mean, you hate to even entertain the thought, but had we done nothing and something awful happened…

It’s sad, really, that you often think the worst of people. But that’s the world we live in now, where you can’t really afford to give anyone the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t know what else we can take from what happened. But I do know that nobody left the park that day feeling good.

Nick Greenizan is a reporter at the Peace Arch News.

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