Saturday, January 16, 2010

Day 16- right, wrong, and illegal

I will admit, I am more apprehensive about this than other letters, as it is the most personal. I suppose these will always, necessarily, be more about me than anything else. Still I prefer to have a more specific, concrete topic than such an abstract idea. I'm definitely not going to make a habit out of this, but I suppose I am allowed one or two letters that read more like diary entries.

Dear Mr. President,

I am considering breaking the law tomorrow night. Being the daughter of two police officers, I have always considered myself to be, by and large, a law-abiding citizen. However, I learned from an early age that not all laws were right and not all wrongs were crimes. My father took a somewhat different view. For him, legal and illegal were the only definitions of right and wrong. (To an extent. Even my father would have to admit the line was somewhat blurrier when it came to speed limits.) I struggled with thisas a teen. My anti-Iraq War bumper sticker was protected by the first amendment, until March 20, 2003, when, according to him, it became an act of sedition and had to be removed. I suppose this is why I have resisted so fiercely the impulse to follow in my parents' footsteps. A career enforcing the law is simplified by a belief in the absolute morality of the law; the idea that right and wrong can be codefied into a fixed, clearly defined, all-purpose system. I could never reconcile this simplicity with the inherent complexity of the human experience. Conversely, the belief that legality, alone, can indicate morality leads also to men like John Yoo, and the twisting of the letters of law to excuse immoral acts.

I understand the need for laws. I respect them and sometimes even, in the course of my job preventing shoplifters, enforce them. But the things in life I feel the most guilty for were perfectly legal acts, and some of the proudest moments of my life involved defying laws that I view to be unjust. Legality is not, necessarily, about morality. However, the law I am considering breaking tomorrow night is not an unjust law. I do think it is there for a good and just purpose and I would not, under any other circumstances, advise, condone or even consider its violation.

Eight years ago, I failed some one. If I had broken a law, been arrested, been punished, maybe by now I would feel better about it. Maybe I would feel as though my debt had, somehow, been paid. Seven years and 363 days ago, I turned 16. I skipped to school in a new purple dress, carrying balloons and flowers. My close friend was being discovered, by his younger brother, with a shotgun wound to the head. I failed him. I knew he was sick. I knew he was depressed. I knew that I was being insensitive. It was such a small cruelty, at the time.

Ever since that day, when people ask me what I want for my birthday I lie. I lie because all I want is for Josh to be alive and 24, not dead and endlessly 16. I want to take back 8 years of his family's suffering. I want something to take away the 8 years of guilt. And, if I can't have those things, I want to sit, alone, in the darkness with him and tell him how sorry I am that I failed him. I've never managed to make it to his graveside on my birthday, since. Either because I was out of the state, or I didn't have a car, or any number of things. But this year, fate conspired to put it all within reach. I'll be off of work too late to make it before the cemetery closes, but that's actually fine by me. I don't want to have to face him in the light of day. I don't want to risk the shame of having his family see my grief in the face of their own. I don't want to have to answer to the living for my crimes.

I wish right and wrong were as simple as the laws of our society. If I do break the law & jump the fence tomorrow night, it will not weigh heavily on my conscience. In your book, you refer to "sacred stories", the tragedies, hard truths and costly lessons that bind us together as people, in our common struggle to live our lives of quiet desperation. I don't know if there is anything sacred about what I'm considering doing. I don't know if I am more afraid of breaking the law or living another year with this weight on my conscience. I hope that I can be forgiven for breaking the law, even if I can't forgive myself for my more egregious trespasses.

Surely a President understands the constant struggle between the comfort in the certain, simple, legal ideas of right and wrong, and the less defined, intangible morality of nature that govern us all. I hope the distinction is easier for you, than it is for me.

Respectfully yours,


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