Rand Paul’s Broken Ribs Make a Good Case for Talking to Your Neighbors

A spat over yard waste resulted in a bonfire and some broken ribs, all of which could have been avoided by remembering what it means to be a good neighbor

Court documents related to Senator Rand Paul’s 2017 assault by neighbor Rene Boucher have revealed a long-standing dispute over yard maintenance. According to court filings by his lawyer, the feud, which resulted in Boucher blindsiding a lawn-mowing Paul and breaking several of his ribs, was allegedly predicated on a yard waste pile. It’s a sordid tale that will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever engaged in passive-aggressive lawn warfare with a neighbor, but there’s an important lesson to be learned for anyone who’s struggled to navigate community landscaping disputes. That lesson? Being a good neighbor is like being a good coworker: It requires communication.

Also, yard rage is real.

How did Boucher, a 60-year-old retired doctor, reach rib-breaking fury levels after living next to Paul for 17 years? He claims the trouble began in 2017 when the view from his back patio was spoiled by an ugly brush pile his libertarian neighbor had plopped close to their shared property line. This wasn’t some small debris pile. According to court documents, it was a wall of branches five feet high and ten feet long.

Rather than wait for Paul to clear the debris away, or for the free market to handle the problem, Boucher took it upon himself to dispose of the branches. Paul then allegedly reconstructed the brush pile, prompting Boucher to remove it again. After the third reconstruction by Paul and a third removal by Boucher, the brush pile appeared a fourth time. Boucher, determined to make a point, lit the pile on fire. In the resulting conflagration, Boucher suffered a number of burns.

Nursing wounds and anger, Bouchard was watching Paul mow his lawn when the senator allegedly picked up some branches and placed them in a pile at the exact spot where the previous pile had been burned. Bouchard snapped like the dry twigs he’d been battling. He tackled Paul. He broke his rib. Despite being rather hilarious from a distance, the incident was pretty horrible — an act of stupidity prefaced by acts of callous indifference.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fact that Paul was clearly being a shitty neighbor. He was either willfully taking advantage of his neighbor’s frustration to get the brush removed (not an inexpensive task, it should be stressed), or he was being passive aggressive by repeatedly building a pile to get under his neighbor’s skin. Either way, he was being provocative.

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But regardless of the provocation, it’s clear Boucher has an air of busybody about him. After all, the pile was on Paul’s property. Unless Paul was breaking specific community covenants there was nothing technically wrong with the pile. Inconsiderate? Sure. But a little inconsideration is bound to occur when you share a property line or a neighborhood.

The big question is, why couldn’t these two grown ass men, neighbors for almost two decades, talk this issue out? Some of it might have to do with the fact that property ownership jacks into a man’s deep desire to control and shape his environment. There’s something of the ideal of American individualism and liberty in lawn and garden care, too. What you create in the green patches around your home is a reflection of who you are. And as such, criticism or infringement of those lush spaces feels deeply personal.

But being neighbors requires a collectivist, cooperative spirit, rather than pioneer fervor. (This is why it feels somehow appropriate that Paul, America’s most prominent anti-collectivist, was the one attacked.) It requires that we work to create an environment that benefits everyone, be it through increasing property values or simple relaxation and enjoyment. But we need to agree on how to do that by talking with one another.

As a long time suburban dad I’ve been on both sides of this issue. I’ve gasped at the color a neighbor has painted a house or complained about the removal of big, perfectly healthy trees from a yard that was not my own. And through these actions, my neighbors have fired up that unique frustration and helplessness of seeing someone change my neighborhood environment for the worse.

I’ve also been the neighbor who has heard whispered complaints about my grass being too high or having moss on my roof. And I have fought urges to passive-aggressively mow profanities into my lawn or cultivate moss on other parts of my home. Luckily, it’s never come to violence.

But usually, I understand that keeping peace means making concessions. And when concessions are too hard to accept, then there’s always talking. And when talking feels impossible, there are always other forums to address grievances. Fire and bodily harm are never necessary.

To be a good citizen and property owner means walking a line between individualism and citizenship. You’d think a wealthy 60-year-old doctor and a sitting Senator would understand that. So maybe, until they grow up, these two men are exactly the neighbor each of them deserves.