Friday, March 18, 2005

Good and Evil

Today's object of ire is again from the WSJ (I know, I've gotta branch out). Philip K. Howard's article of March 17th notes:

Sooner or later, Americans will realize that sue-for-anything justice erodes their freedom. First it was diving boards that disappeared, then seesaws. Businesses stopped giving references, and doctors started quitting.

Like a lake receding from its shores, the area of our freedom continues to diminish with each new theory of liability. The latest casualty is volunteerism. Last month, a jury in Milwaukee found the Catholic Archdiocese liable because a volunteer for a Catholic lay organization, driving her own car, ran a red light and caused an accident while delivering a statue of the Virgin Mary to an invalid. Although the church does not direct the activities of this group, called the Legion of Mary, its meetings are held on church property. The jury decided the Archdiocese should pay $17 million to the paralyzed victim, an 82-year-old semi-retired barber.

Peggy Noonan of the same paper on the same day (see what I mean about branching out?) has an only slightly appendixed version of Ashley Smith's story- in her own words- about her experience as Brian Nichols's hostage and his decision after their conversations about God to allow her to leave. It's a freebie for non-subscribers.

A new film written and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel has opened in Germany, and many are complaining about the human, though not enviable, face it gives the Fuhrer. Downfall shows Hitler as kind to his secretaries, attached to his dog and chocolate cake. It makes some viewers squirm to see him- in any moment of his existence- as comprehensible to a sensitive person.

So, this all makes me think:
Should we punish people who are trying to do good even if it's in the name of God? Should organizers of volunteers become so afraid of the liability that they stop helping? I don't think they should pay a discouraging cost for stepping in where families and communities fail. It's probably crass to note, but what are we really compensating an 82-year old Milwaukee barber for? The 17 million cannot ease his pain and suffering if medical science and his own state of mind don't. Medical compensation and care for the rest of his life seems right to award, but unless the cost of living is way up in Wisconsin, he doesn't need 17 million. That's a million a year if he lived to 99! Of course, I say that hypothetically, because his lawyer will take at least 1/3 of the award. And the reason that lawyer took the case, at the risk of being crass again, is that he found a way to link the incident to the deep pockets of the Catholic Church which had the affrontery to facilitate a woman supplying a devotional statue to comfort an invalid.

Does this represent our general wishes or what we see has the essence of justice? I think not, that's why I support strong tort reform and a renewed stringency around "pain and suffering" or punative "teach them a lesson" awards.

Onto larger offenders. As a civil society, we may argue about the best way to view and deal with exceptionally heinous criminals like Nichols or much further along the spectrum, Hitler. However, the current fashion of dehumanizing villains by labeling them monsters denies how close they are to ourselves, liberates us from the duties of compassion, and encourages us to minimize our own failings. I believe in acceptance of our flaws with suitable efforts at reform, not comparison with "bigger sinners" until our petty crimes of the heart and mind and word look small enough to ignore.

To me, all these stories lay across that uneasy confluence of organized society, popular culture, and religion that is a defining characteristic of this moment. While many people seem to want to turn religion into an either/or proposition that requires them to deliver regular condemnations- an operation more about the state of the lungs than the spirit- the greatest evils in the world still reside in humanity, a humanity capable of the world's greatest good and redemption- even Brian Nichols, even Der Nazi Fuhrer. It's a bag of contradictions you can spend your life learning to carry. If it doesn't seem as immediately alluring as easy conclusions, nonetheless, I hope people will hunger to leave the shallows and attend to the deep mysteries of life. The dilemmas are knottier but they make for humility. And the glories are infinitely richer and more wondrous than "I told you so."

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