Law and Responsibility

It is fashionable in some quarters today for “pundits, politicians and assorted talking heads,” when asked to comment on a physically or psychologically traumatic event or condition, to suggest that there is some universal cause and, therefore, cure for the very different personalities and proclivities of people who are responsible for violent crimes whether that crime is committed in Baghdad or Baltimore.  We will hear that the reason that both foreign and domestic terrorists and criminals attack us is that they are “aggrieved at our foreign policy,” they are “victims of poverty,” they were or are “oppressed,” they “lack self-esteem,” they had a “bad childhood,” or they were “abused.”  If my twenty years on the Bench has taught me anything, it is that none of these all-encompassing theories is valid.  Perhaps the best way to respond to them is to heed the words of George Orwell, the author of the book 1984, who said, “You have to be an intellectual to believe such nonsense.  No ordinary man could be such a fool.”

True, guns should neither be as plentiful nor as accessible, particularly to children, as they are in American society.  In fact, it is ridiculous that they are.  Also, obviously, parents should pay more attention to their teenage children and their mental health problems and certainly any signs of mental illness if it can be detected.  Finally, without question, the entertainment industry should accept responsibility for the way it pollutes the airways and the Internet with messages, information and images that arguably aggravate the negative aspects of some human beings’ personalities and the concomitant drive of these same individuals to destructive actions.

But, what separates us from other animals and what is in fact the source of all the promise there is in the human species, is our capacity, if we live up to it, to face life and assume responsibility for it.  That capacity does not preclude us from needing, seeking and receiving outside support from friends, counselors, clergy and even therapists.  But, it does mean that ultimately we make our own decisions, and we are responsible and accountable for them.  This kind of facing up to one’s life comes with having freedom and responsibility.

As the philosopher and author, Erich Fromm, points out in his book, Escape from Freedom, freedom and responsibility develops the person and makes him or her “grow up.”  It makes a person think hard, feel hard, choose hard and live hard and it precludes a person from blaming the results of his personal decision-making on anyone else or anything else, including his religion, his politics, the Internet, the movies, television, his access to firearms, etc.

In a Peanuts cartoon, two of the characters are standing and watching Sally crawl.  One comments to the other: “It is good that Sally should crawl around awhile, because once she stands up and walks, she’s committed for life!”  So it is with the individual who tastes independent and accountable living.  Once a person stands up and walks, once she is free, she is committed for life!

But not everyone is willing to stand up and walk.  As positive and appealing as this outlook is to some, it is a lonely and frightening one to others, terrorizing, in fact.  I am reminded of a story about a person who, upon facing some threatening stress situation and receiving its first impulses of pain, runs to the bedroom, jumps in bed, pulls the electric blanket over his head, assumes the fetal position, and turns the dial up to 9!  Isn’t that what we saw in Georgia when the young man who shot his fellow students at Heritage High School was confronted by the Assistant Principal and handed over the gun he had used while holding onto the Principal and confessing to him, “I’m so scared.”

That’s what freedom, and its enormous responsibilities, do to some people.  Each, in his own way, assumes the fetal position and turns the security blanket up to 9.  Many accomplish this by racing frantically about looking for arms to leap into, crying out desperately to any person or power on earth, real or imagined, to take care of them, to make their decisions for them, to give them security, and to make them, for God’s sake, happy!  And there are people in gangs, militias, cults, and even the government, who are ready to assume that responsibility, ready to exploit people’s weaknesses for their own ends, whether they be the ends of ego, personal power, profit, or pride.

In Albert Camus’s novel, The Fall, Clamence, the chief character, says: “I invite the good people to submit to my authority and humbly to solicit the comforts of slavery, even if I have to present it as true freedom.”  In Erich Fromm’s book he explains and documents how fascist leaders accomplished this in the 30’s and 40’s.  Today, new tyrants do it, the demagogues, who stalk the land in the form of extremist groups and gangs as well as some political and religious leaders and organizations. They appeal to “the little person,” and to “the littleness” in a person, to the powerless, frustrated, filled with hate, alone and afraid before life, its freedom and responsibility.  Each in essence shouts as Fromm described in his book:

  • I am strong and powerful!
  • I am a defender of the weak and of our cherished liberties!
  • Submit to my authority!
  • Let me take care of you, protect you!
  • Let me make your decisions for you!
  • Receive the comforts of slavery to me … for in me is true freedom.

Isn’t that at least part of the discussion we are witnessing over everything from Osama Bin Ladin’s appeal to Arab Youth to the argument that we should protect ourselves from his al-Qaeda by allowing the Government to tap our phones and collect data about our private lives.

Let’s not elevate these people and institutions by allowing any of us to use them to diminish even a little bit our responsibility for our own actions.  They don’t deserve that kind of attention or deference.  They certainly don’t have, and we should not invest them with, the authority to justify or even mitigate decisions for what we should be held personally accountable.

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