Opinion: Carolina Beat

Stopping the Barbarians

RALEIGH — Every now and then in life you see a news report or read something in a newspaper or online that crystallizes an issue in an inescapable way.

That happened to me recently when I read that a Wal-Mart employee in Kansas had been fired for attempting to stop a shoplifter running out of the store with a computer. Heather Ravenstein, a single parent (and who isn’t these days, seemingly) saw a guy hurrying suspiciously up the main aisle toward the exit carrying a $600 computer.

He went past the detectors at the door, and the alarms went off, so Ravenstein confronted him and asked for a receipt, whereupon the miscreant kicked her and punched her in the shoulder, then dropped the computer and ran.

You’d think Ravenstein would receive some kind of commendation for her effort. After all, it saved Wal-Mart $600. But no. The next day, she was called in to the assistant manager’s office and was reminded of the policy that only a manager of someone in Wal-Mart’s asset protection arm (that’s shoplifting cops in real language) are allowed to confront shoplifters.

In the immortal words of Donald Trump, the assistant manager, who was no doubt pleased with his enforcement of this inane rule, told her, “You’re fired!”

Ravenstein told The Wichita Eagle that she had on several occasions prevented customers from cashing forged payroll checks, noting wryly that she never got fired for that kind of “asset protection.”

What bothers me about this report, and others similar to it, is what it means for our society.

Ravenstein is one of millions of Americans who know something is terribly wrong in America. Things are broken that never were before, values we have long held dear are being trampled every day, honesty and integrity have become as quaint and rare as high-button shoes. She and many others like her just react when they see a wrong.

Instead of saying “It’s not my job” when a lowlife decided he didn’t need to pay for a computer like normal folks, she took action. And for this she is punished by a craven bureaucratic system that rewards apathy and punishes a passion for doing what’s right.

I’ve long been a Wal-Mart supporter. While many complain about how it’s killing downtowns (I don’t recall similar complaints when malls killed downtown, by the way), I see that it is providing the kind of low prices that allow struggling people to make it in tough times.

While others get upset when a new Wal-Mart is built in their community, I see the hundreds of jobs it creates for people like Heather Ravenstein.

But she doesn’t have that job anymore.

I e-mailed Wal-Mart’s corporate office about her firing, offering that this was a major public-relations gaffe on their part. Here’s what they wrote back:

Thank you for your inquiry. We take the safety and security of our customers and associates very seriously. There are specific instructions as to what an associate can and can’t do during a shoplifting incident. Those rules are in place to protect our associates and our customers. Thank you for taking the time to contact us with your feedback.

There has been an outpouring of support for Ravenstein since she was fired, and lots of heat for Wal-Mart. Her landlord gave her a month’s free rent, and she’s had offers of a grocery and gas card from anywhere but Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club. She’s also had several offers of job interviews.

Whether this will make Wal- Mart reassess its policy, which encourages people of honor NOT to do the right — and instinctive — thing, is yet to be seen. But I’ll bet there are some high-level meetings going on in Arkansas right now to discuss it.

Everywhere you turn these days people are surrendering to deviancy, going along to get along.

Institutions like Wal-Mart are encouraging this acquiescence to lowered standards with rules that discourage action and outrage.

But, like Ravenstein, we can fight barbarism when we see it, and maybe others will wake up before it’s too late.

Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.