Saturday, October 16, 2010


A Great Falls murder case has ended in a mistrial. Two men and a woman were drinking, there was a quarrel, one man left and then returned, intending to re-enter the home, the occupant shot him through the door. As if this weren’t ambiguous enough, the law had been recently changed. Previously a person who used violence against an intruder on their property had to show that they had first tried to escape or had called for police help before they used their own weapon. The law change removed this requirement.

The point of writing laws is to prevent violence by giving people the means to sort things out without shooting each other. But once a person is drunk, they are hardly governed by laws. In fact, the purpose of drinking is to move into a frame of mind that is free of constraints, all the time believing that one is operating in a sensible manner. The constraint or prevention has to be out there BEFORE the drinking starts. Otherwise, it’s a matter of dissecting and sorting after everyone is sobered up and possibly confined. When meth first hit, I was in Saskatoon and a police officer said to me, “We’re getting more and more violent deaths at meth parties. The witnesses tell us who the killer was. The trouble is that none of them was legally sane enough to testify.”

These matters are not sorted out by the participants or witnesses (if there is a difference between those categories) . Another authority must intervene and not necessarily an authority respected or helped by anyone involved. In theory, a jury of twelve “peers” must resolve the ambiguities, but hardly REAL peers. No one has ever seen a legal jury of meth-addicted violent people. A person on trial is lucky to get jurors who even approximate his or her gender, race, age, or economic status -- much less jurors who have spent much time around meth-addicted violent people. Justice, even in a democracy, is an approximation.

In a time like this one of two pressures makes matters even worse. One is that the cultural context of the rules are drastically changing across generations and economic strata, to say nothing about occupations. “Gay” is okay in many places, but not in others. Abortions of unwanted conceptions are accepted by some and not others. Like any other gradient between one context and another, these differences can be exploited to punish people -- or to get them off.

The other pressure is economic. The less money there is, the less justice there is, no matter whose terms and laws are in play. The less money there is, the more the poor get criminalized and locked up, even though a penal institution is horrendously expensive and promotes diseases and thought processes that challenge the population at large. The less money there is, the more people slip into crime and substance relief from a punishing consciousness.

When we used to speak of the New Media creating a “global village” in which we all talked face-to-face, we did not expect that gossip and reputation destruction would also become global. In that weird way communication has, the flip of this invention of fantasy blaming is the creation of saints and heroes. The result is a radical splitting of opinion that fuels headlong collision, so intense that it justifies terrorism, destroying any context for justice. Religion, which is cultural -- though there are basic human consequences and vectors -- is a major part of the turmoil and some people resolve the conflict by emotionally leaping out into some supernatural vision of a perfect or apocalyptic world.

In time some kind of solution will evolve, though it might mean the extinction of things we value, maybe a level of prosperity we won’t like but that stops privileging a few people, a few nations. If overpopulation continues to press us, there will be more of the plagues and genocides we see year after year. If our behavior continues to press the environment, conditions for human life may simply disappear. Already there are more uninhabitable spots all the time -- not just in some remote Siberian wasteland but also, for instance, sending radioactivity from Hanford down the Columbia River to Portland. Already the average lifespan in some places is getting shorter and shorter. Already AIDS is creeping into newer and more populations. Hepatitis, new waves of malaria, or just the plague of aching and fatigue in some people, are not necessarily killers but serious diminishments of what makes life worthwhile.

Books and articles about “culture collapse” are popular as people in think tanks try to understand what a sustainable culture might be like, not always realizing that the culture they want to sustain is the one in which they are comfortable. Politicians play “Sim Nation” or even “Sim planet,” but without as much care for the consequences to the nation as to their re-election.

We are already drunk, intoxicated by the money and unable to sober up enough to truly realize it. It’s impossible to consider the possibility of giving up a modern American lifestyle in a megacity even for the sake of an Iowa farm family making twenty thousand dollars a year and feeding the nation, much less for a Haitian huddled in mud under a tattered tarp who hasn’t eaten for a day or two. Would an American teenager give up the TV in his room, much less his or her iPod, in order to save . . . you imagine the beneficiary. I suspect the teen might do it so save one of Jane Goodall’s chimps, now also threatened by AIDS. Just not for a person.

When we can put money aside, it will be because of a “religious” vision that makes a strong and persuasive case for a new way of life. This happened in the case of the new vision that extinguished slavery (at least officially), that changed the treatment of lepers, that began to challenge the treatment of horses as if they were machines, and tries to end the kind of relationships between nations and within nations that determine outcomes with raw, brute force like the drug cartels in Juarez.

Some people thought that the simple sight of our planet floating in the orderly null of outer space would be the precipitating crystal for that new understanding. Clearly more interpretation and motivation are needed. There is no more compelling law than natural law. No legislation, no jury, no judge -- just consequences. No God is necessary to enforce natural law. We just need clarity and courage.

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