The bizarre neighbor dispute that felled Rand Paul

Rand Paul assault suspect pleads not guilty
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Story highlights

  • Rand Paul got beat up by a neighbor but it's unclear why. Some say it was over lawn maintenance, others say politics
  • Jay Parini: Within this bizarre story lies a lesson for neighbors everywhere: good relations need talking, listening, and daily diplomacy

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His upcoming book is The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)One of most bizarre stories in the recent press -- and that's really saying something these days -- concerns the tackling of Senator Rand Paul on his lawn by his Kentucky neighbor, Dr. Rene Boucher, on November 3. Both men are physicians, and have been living in close proximity for 17 years.

What on earth happened?
"It was a very regrettable dispute between two neighbors over a matter that most people would regard as trivial," Boucher's attorney said, which contradicts a piece in the Washington Examiner which implies the attacker was rabidly anti-Trump and may have had a political motive for the assault.
    On the other hand, Rand Paul has himself often seemed quite anti-Trump, at times almost a thorn in Trump's flesh (though the two recently played golf to patch things up). So that motive would seem, at best, confused.
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    According to CBS News, neighbors originally reported that "the two men had a long-running dispute over yard waste." And on Thursday Boucher's attorney, Matt Baker, told CNN that Paul has hired a personal injury attorney to file a damages claim against his neighbor. Baker directed CNN to the account of the developer who sold both men their homes and who has said the long-running conflict was over lawn maintenance.
    "It was absolutely and unequivocally not about politics, not about right versus left and not about Democrat versus Republican," Baker said.
    Let's assume the two neighbors don't much like each other, or this attack could never have happened. And let's also assume that trivial disputes about landscaping may have combined with political animus on the part of Boucher, and that the doctor exploded when he saw his famous neighbor blithely cutting the grass. He tackled him, breaking six ribs and damaging a lung.
    It's beyond absurd.
    On the other hand, from the beginning of time neighbors have exchanged nasty words that led to fistfights or worse. Trivial wars in neighborhoods become a kind of microcosm, with explanatory value. Reading about Paul and his neighbor, I kept thinking of President Trump and his childish banter about "little Rocket Man," his taunting nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and the potential for such rhetoric to escalate -- in this case into a full-blown nuclear war that could end the lives of millions.
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    Attorney: Rand Paul attack was not political 02:33
    The truth is, even when you profoundly disagree with people, you must treat them with respect, even when what they say or do seems beyond the pale, as with Kim (or Trump himself). The consequences of escalating fights are too real, as we have seen with Paul and his injuries.
    They could lead to his missing key Senate votes on the Republican tax bill -- although, as a deficit hawk, one might assume that Paul's vote on this bill remains in question. (Paul once bemoaned that "Republicans gave up on caring about deficits long ago.")
    So how does one deal with neighborly conflicts in an ethical manner?
    Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall" offers an insight into this dilemma. It's about two farmers in northern New England who once a year walk the border between their properties to repair the dry-stone wall that separates them. "Good fences make good neighbors," the one farmer says, repeating an old saying.
    But do they? The narrator would seem to disagree, at least in part, as his neighbor is "like an old-stone savage." But Frost accedes to this yearly ritual, believing in the need to maintain borders, working with, not against, his "savage" neighbor.
    There is a mighty wisdom here, one that can inform local and international politics.
    Good etiquette means keeping your neighbors closely informed about your doings. It means keeping up the conversation, so that misunderstandings are kept to a minimum. What works on a small scale works on a large scale. To prevent violence, which, given the predilections of this species, is always a serious threat, we must engage in what I would call "daily diplomacy." Real conversation is our only way through, and conversation means listening as well as talking.
    Tackling our neighbors, even if they are politically noxious to us, even if they let their dead leaves blow onto our property, is surely out of the question.