Once, years ago, I arrived late at the Tucson Rodeo Parade. All I got to see was the last few floats, a banner-bedecked buckboard and a roping horse or two, and then the final group in the parade: five yellow street-sweeping machines and small army of guys with rakes and brooms and those pivoting dustpans on sticks, whose job it was to clean up all the fragrant aftermath; to make things smell OK until next time.
That clean-up crew seemed like The Law to me. (I know that’s odd. Let me explain.) I’ve never been an anarchist. I recognize the need for laws and understand their regulatory function and their importance as deterrents of antisocial behavior. Sometimes, though, I’m sad to say, the law just doesn’t work. It bumbles, haws and does its best, which isn’t always good enough. A major function of Law in society is to establish closure. To lay uncertainty to rest. To make things smell OK until next time. A judgment, once made, equals order restored. The jury is no longer out. There’s one less thing to fret about, thank God.
Decisions and pronouncements – official determinations of guilt or innocence, permission to build a pipeline declared or denied – these things are ruled upon in court, and, ruled upon, become “reality,” despite that some judgments are utterly lame.
Realities proclaimed by men are subject to the quirks and flaws of men. How many convicted rapists, for instance, after spending 40 years in the slammer, are later found innocent by DNA science, which didn’t exist back when they were accused? “Oh, Jeez, too bad!” we say. (What can you say?) An imperfect system is better than none, we suppose. And, by golly, it is.
Society dislikes uncertainty. The Central Park Five were found guilty, of course, which helped comfort New York’s white bourgeoisie. But innocent convicts can’t see it that way. They know they didn’t commit the crime; yet, young, naive, and black and scared, they copped a cockeyed plea. The cops are under pressure to solve major cases fast. The mayor and the public and the scandal-hungry press will kick their ass if they do not. So, sometimes, justice isn’t served at all.
The law, with its picayune distinctions, fussy language and nitpicking definitions does its best to anticipate everything – to be completely unambiguous. But life is an unruly mess, a squirming, varied, cavalcade of clashing so-called “facts.” The law, striving for certainty, is not unlike a well-intentioned, not-too-brilliant child who tries to fill a giant sphere with straight-edged, cubic blocks. It can’t be done. All you can do to fill the void is come up with a smaller block and then a smaller block.
Still, glaring gaps remain. The only way to tell yourself that you’ve completely filled the sphere is not to look too carefully. If you can keep your standards low, then everything will seem OK. And, Friend of Mine, for most of us, when things appear OK, they are OK.
Think back on ersatz medicine – the many hopeful, useless “cures” like leeches, cupping, trepanation, radium and mercury – the crackling electricity confined in a glass tube: we hoped they’d work, but they did not. Until we find a better way, such stopgap quackery will have to do. And face it: when you’re young and scared and worried about monsters living underneath your bed, it helps to have your mom or dad or someone bigger than you are assure you that there’s nothing under there – perhaps, especially, when there is!