30 October, 2011

Legalism in America and a few of its Ramifications

I'm not going to start ranting about the woes of the American legal system; I think it's pretty good, that the level of professionalism of those involved in genuine criminal cases is generally good and that things like what happened over in Italy to Amanda Knox (basically a case of police officers saying "we knew she did it...we didn't need any proof" and then fabricating some extremely bad "evidence" and a lurid, sensationalist story that captured the imaginations of the jury) don't happen too often here. Sure, there are injustices in US criminal cases, but people are human, right? Can't condemn the system for a few peoples' abuses.

That's criminal law though. I mean, for violent crimes and such--I don't know all the technical terminology. What gets to me in America, however, is the legalism of the system, a trait which allows people to be made into criminals for really doing nothing at all. The extremely problematic and well-known litigiousness of  many Americans can essentially be reduced to people exploiting the letter of the law in order to make huge profits for themselves. Possibly worse though is the way civic liberties can be violated (especially in public schools) simply because there's a legal loophole giving paranoid, antagonistic, or simply lazy officials or private individuals the opportunity to target individuals who have done nothing morally wrong at all--or in some cases something minorly wrong, but certainly not meriting the severity of the punishment.

Some examples from the past few years:

  1. TSA: Everyone knows about this one. Not quite the same issue that I'm pointing to in this post, but annoying enough to merit a mention. Even if everyone out there has heard all the proof. Let's also point out that what it has in common with the above is the way it makes non-criminals appear criminal. Every person who chooses to travel by plane is a suspected terrorist. Right. What would the reaction be if the police force started treating everyone as a murder suspect? Searching, strip-searching and questioning and so forth just because "oh, well, you might be a criminal."? Sounds a little bit totalitarian, no? And what makes it worse is that TSA tactics really don't even work:
    1. The no-fly list:  This wouldn't be a bad idea--it would actually be extremely efficient if Israel's record is anything to go by--if we had the intelligence to back it up. As it is, naming dead people, ex-Marines, and failing to distinguish between actual suspects and five-year-olds who have the same name is not going to get you very far. It notably failed to mention the "Underwear bomber," Abdulmutallab, whose father even contacted US intelligence officials twice to warn them about his son's extremism. Faisal Shahzad, who attempted the car bombing in NYC, was actually on the no-fly list, but no one at the airport bothered to check it. Lot of good that's going to do. 
    2. Full body scanners: A.) they don't work; B.) they don't work; C.) according to Israeli security experts, they don't work; D.) while it is debatable how much harm the radiation you're exposed to in one of those machines does to the human person, I, and I assume many others as well, would like a little more reassurance that our health isn't one of the many things that can be sacrificed so that we don't die in a terrorist attack. Hmm...terrorism or cancer? Which one is more scary? Which is more likely? Regardless of whether it's unproven that the scanners do cause health problems, it's importantly unproven that they don't. Like with so many other things we've been exposing the American population to for years, we probably won't know until at least two decades from now. 
    3. Alternative searches are just nasty. And if a terrorist can dupe the scanners, which of them is going to opt for one of those anyway?
  2.   Schools--the "Zero Tolerance" policy: Sure, violence in schools is bad. Tragic. But is it really better to run your school in a state of such paranoia that students can be arrested and traumatized for carrying a plastic butter knife? And the police force will just go along with this? 
    1. Some examples: Wow, yes, I definitely would be able to kill an entire school with a plastic butter knife. At least a steak knife is more plausible. Though what a ten-year-old girl could do with it, I'm not sure.  Carrying 11 pills of ibuprofen to school is also apparently a criminal offense. Americans also really like strip searching, it seems! This sample is small because I don't want to go overboard with links.  Search google news to get lots more interesting stories. 
    2. Creative writing. This one deserves a sub-category of it's own. Yes, it sounds like a great idea to give your students a free-writing exercise, tell them to write about whatever they want, not to censor anything, and then have them arrested when their writing is "disturbing." Or wait...maybe the real purpose was to try to identify potential threats...in which case it makes a lot of sense. It's happened at least three times: one; two; three. 
  3. Stupid laws: So, did you know that you can be arrested for owning a sharpie? Like this student and this man?  Ok, sure, the man was an ex-graffiti artist, and I don't like graffiti. But the key work is "ex". He had since become a professional artist. Using.... markers, stickers, wheatpaste posters, art prints, a copy of  the Los Angeles Times, and a computer. Which is apparently enough to get you raided. Or how about ridiculous royalties? Like when Ascap started demanding that the Girl Scouts pay for singing campfire songs...apparently that's considered a public performance. Given the quality of most campfire singing, you can be pretty sure that they're not worried about the public performance issue so much as missing out on a chance to squeeze a few more bucks out of people.  Watch out if you decide to sing Happy Birthday in public...that's copyrighted too, so technically you can only sing it in "small groups of family members".
  4. This last one is tragic. I don't really understand what this Northern Virginia cop was trying to accomplish, but the way things went makes him sound either like a real-life, not-so-funny Dwight Schrute, or someone pursuing a personal vendetta. Basically, he heard this guy, Sal Culosi, betting with his friends on a college football game while at a bar. The stakes were relatively low; on the order of about $50 or so. What was the detective's response? Befriend Culosi, talk him over the course of time into raising the stakes to $2000, and then bring charges against him for running an "illegal gambling operation" (the stakes need to be at least $2000 for it to become illegal). So you have a detective seeing a guy doing something harmless and legal with his friends. The detective deliberately incites the man to cross the line and do something illegal (which the man most likely didn't even know was illegal--who knows stuff like that?), just so he can bring charges against him. Not already bad enough? He has the house raided by a Swat team. In the process of the raid he shoots Culosi. Culosi was completely unarmed by all accounts; what's saving the detective from prosecution is the claim that the shooting was an "accident"--plus the North Virginian blue wall, which is apparently as bad as I've been told it is in NY. Forensic investigation suggested that the account of the "accident" is untenable. But we don't listen to things like that, do we? Not when the guy who got shot was a dangerous criminal who liked betting on football games with his friends...Come on people, what is this? Are the blue laws back or something? And I still don't understand how the inciting thing is not a problem. Generally it would be pretty bad for a police officer or detective to go up to someone he suspected of violent tendencies and incite them to murder, just so he could have an excuse for arresting them. Or am I crazy?
Now, as much as incidents like these upset me, I have no idea how to respond to them, beyond observing that they have in common a certain legalism that makes random people into unintentional criminals. Identifying the roots and suggesting a solution is far beyond my capacities, since I have no professional knowledge of law at all. Is the root problem inherent in the legal system itself? Is it the fault of the way people manipulate the legal system? Is it due to the contemporary American weakness for "safety at all costs" (very destructive of freedom, to be sure), or more to our increasing tendency to substitute legality for morality, to live by the letter of the law and not by the spirit? And regarding that last suggestion, could one even turn the focus to the "spirit of the law" without ultimately destroying law and order unless society were almost impossibly virtuous?

On the other hand, I'm well aware that it's things like this, the "sensational" cases, that get reported, giving the general public a much bleaker view of the legal system than is probably appropriate. Moreover, these student arrests and Ascap demands don't usually hold up in court. Which is a comfort. The injustices that get perpetrated by the legal system in the long term tend to be the much more tolerable ones that exonerate someone who's obviously guilty ( O.J., Casey Anthony) rather than those which inter an innocent person for four years, like they can apparently do in Italy.

1 comment:

Greg Piv said...

I love how creative writing class now is a sting operation for potential malfeasance. If such detestation of authority wasn't there before, trust me, it's going to develop then. Perhaps it is a safety measure, one that needs to be worked into any system of creative art in order to prevent people from abusing their creativity.

I remember how Dwight was also a volunteer sheriff's deputy. Maybe folks should think about relegating such maverick officers to that department.