Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Letter of the Law

I suppose no one wants to hear even more "further reflections on Ferguson," which is really the beauty of a blog like this. You're not paying for it. you don't have to read it. There's still something I want to write down and here it goes:

One of the things that's been most troubling for me about all of this (and not just "this," but all of the similar controversies over time) is what it says about our underlying assumptions of law and justice. I know I've written about it before, but it boggles the mind that people (and its almost all people) so completely equate the two, law and justice.

It seems that everyone (or almost everyone) works on the assumption that the laws themselves are bedrock. If things don't work out, it's not the fault of the law, but something gone wrong in carrying out the law. We seem to think the law is inherently justice and only its enforcement can be corrupt.

Sure, there are unjust laws, but those are big things, which are ferreted out by society. Things like that don't sneak up on people; they're not spurned by individual incidents or specific situations. When laws are the problem, we fight wars. When execution of the laws are wrong, that's when we riot. We read into the judgment or law with out own biases. A black man can't get a fair shake with all these corrupt cops out there. These cops risk their lives to do their job - it's not always pretty, but somebody's got to do it.

These attitudes don't help anyone, they run headlong into each other, often in violent ways, but they're ultimately rooted in the same problem. Laws are not the bedrock for society. They may be the bones upon which society rests, but there is something deeper, some ethereal morality that governs how we live and interact with each other. Laws try to approximate it in technical ways; religions approach it with mystic vagueries (and sometimes laws of their own), but we all sort of know there is a right and wrong out there, even if we can't always touch it.

So we do have to have laws. We have to have some concrete way of putting into practice that thing out there we can't fully explain. WE must have laws, but we must also recognize them for what they are: approximations of morality, not the definition of it.

I've talked about this analogy a lot, for a lot of things, but our justice machine seems to be putting out faulty products. Whatever society we've constructed from the laws we have is producing results that look like Ferguson. Now the results most people get most of the time are within the bounds of acceptability, so we avoid blaming the machine itself. We attempt to tweak the results, manipulate them a little, throw away the truly unsalvageable, make the product workable for more people. We're focused on changing the results.

You may be able to patch something workable together that way, but it can't last. You've still got a broken machine. Unless and until we're willing to admit, really admit, that it's the machine that's the problem, not the outcomes, we're going to keep having the same results. We're patching together a broken machine and with each passing year it takes more effort to make the results look like we want them to look. Eventually the whole thing's gonna fall apart.

I have no doubt the grand jury in Ferguson studied the evidence, deliberated in good faith, and honestly followed the instructions given them to the letter of the law. There's some debate over just how robust the prosecution was in presenting a case, but ultimately the system seems to have worked as it was intended to work.

Of course, if this is true, then the system's got to change - not just to amend the result into something we'd like better, that's a fools errand, but wholesale reform, redesign, re-engineering the way these laws and customs work so that everyone, police and protester alike, can be happy with the result.

I recognize we've been sold the notion this kind of result is an impossible pipe dream simply because it's never happened before. To that I'd say, things have, generally, always gotten better over time. While I have hope in the promise of unity, even those skeptics have to believe there's a possibility for improvement (at least as much as they believe it won't happen).

GM makes a lot of cars. For a while there, they knew the cars were coming off the line faulty, but they were content to fix them after the fact. Only now are they having to go back and fix the whole production process. It's not enough to just fix the results, we have to go back and fix the machine that produces the results we don't like.

Even if most of the people like their results, when some don't, we can always work to make things better. Constantly improving, not settling for pretty good - at least not when it comes to human lives. That's not to say everyone must end up equal, but there is some baseline for sufficiency in society - when people fall below it endemically, the machine has to be rethought.

If the result of these events in Ferguson is status quo, we're not going to make it. Even if this one event blows over, the compound effects will eventually catch up to us. The outrage testifies to the fact something is wrong. The Grand Jury has shown it's not the police officer himself, perhaps it's his training or the culture and influences that shape it. That's the next step. Riots, at this point, can be debilitating if they're too overtly focused on the results and not the machine. The message has been sent; now the hard work of moving forward must begin.

[Edited 12-3-2014 to add] This was posted yesterday. Today a grand jury in New York decided not to prosecute a police office for choking Eric Garner (who died of a related heart attack) over suspected illegal cigarette sales. The incident was captured on video. The office in question was already facing charges of abuse in previous incidents and any number of policy and procedure violations were admitted to by both police officials and medical responders. It's an almost entirely different situation from Michael Brown, but it turns out to be very much the same. The machine is broken.

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