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The Law And Morality

Are They Enough?

(A comment On Our Cities)





When discussing politics, many words are thrown around today without really knowing what these words entail, or how they’re defined. Words like, freedom, nation, society, economy and government. My other essays have touched on many aspects of these things, and the repercussions arising from not realizing how they are defined. But there is one word that is generally thought to be even more important in the implementation of all these other concepts, because it is thought that through this all the others function; that word is law.

But is this really the case? Are laws the universal panacea for all that ails our present ailing societies, especially those great bastions of our populations – our cities?

You be the judge.

Let me preface this essay with a little aside on my own life.

I grew up in the inner city of South Philadelphia. I lived practically all my life in and around the inner city, some fifty years in all. I know what it’s like growing up there, and how it affects the people who grow up there. It’s not easy; in fact, in many ways it’s like growing up in a combat zone. It leaves you scarred, and traumatized.

When I was a youngster we lived in a very small street in South Philly, it was filled with kids, and at times I am sure it had a distinct resemblance to a “nut house”, as we referred to a lunatic asylum back then. Bedlam was the normal there; that, gangs and constant fighting 1 . I’m sure it wasn’t quite as bad as some other areas were, because we were somewhat homogeneous in our make up; we were about ninety-nine percent Italian, with the other one percent mainly Jewish, Irish, Polish, and what have you. We Italians called the others, ‘Americani’, since we didn’t really distinguish between them; all we knew was they weren’t us, although the Jews were different, we seemed to bond somewhat closer with them. But we were homogeneous as far as the neighborhood went. It was us against anyone who was on the outside. There weren’t many black people around us then; they lived in a different section of town; they were sort of an unknown then, a different group, and therefore another enemy to be feared 2 .

When I was about ten years old, we moved to another small street a little bit North of where we had lived. This house was bigger, and on the corner of a small street and a larger street. My mother had found it, and bought it because it had a small storefront and a double garage in the back, and of course, the price was right. She knew we could rent those out, and have the house pay for itself. My mother was always the decision maker in the family; a strong Italian woman, who could, at times, be like a she-wolf, especially where her family was concerned.

I won’t go into all the travails we suffered there, in adjusting and learning our way around, but I will describe one night that sticks in my mind, and definitely had an affect on me.

That night was a little after we had moved there. It was late at night, about two in the morning, and my bedroom was on the second floor toward the back, just in front of where the garages were situated. My mom had been fighting with the neighbors about parking in front of the garages. We didn’t have a car ourselves, so she had rented them out to a couple of contractors, who had to access them frequently, and had difficulty getting their stuff in and out because neighbors were parking in front of the garages, although they were clearly marked with “no parking” signs. That night a neighbor had again parked there.

As I said, it was about two in the morning, I was sound asleep, and then suddenly I woke up. Everything was red, an eerie glow that flickered and convulsed with shimmering red silhouettes that danced in the windows, and played on the walls. Suddenly, a car horn blared out of the night; I got up, and quickly put on my pants and shoes, and could hear my parents moving about. I smelled a terrific odor of gasoline, and an acrid smell of burning materials. My mother was calling to me to go downstairs, and get out through the doors in the storefront. I guess she thought the house was on fire. Then suddenly a terrific explosion rocked the house – like a bomb had gone off! I fell to the floor; then I got up, and pushed the blinds away, and looked out toward the back of the house. Hugh flames danced up from what seemed to have been the car that was parked there. I ran downstairs, just as my parents reached the stairway behind me. Sirens wailed, and the horn had stopped; the only other noises were the crackling of the flames and the sounds of neighbors emerging from their houses.

What had happened was later found out, after the firemen had put out the fire, and we had gone through the same drill two more times that night. A crazy individual (I don’t know what else to call him) had taken to setting random cars on fire that night. The result was always the same: the horn blaring and an explosion as the car blew up. After the car in front of our garages was destroyed, we went back to bed, and then heard another horn a block away. We got up, and found another car burning; an hour later, another horn, and another fire. Finally someone spotted him, and they apprehended him. We didn’t go to sleep until nearly six that night.

The next day the burned out hulk of the car remained in front of our garages, and would stay there for another week, as the people, who owned it, took their sweet time to remove it. Luckily, there was no real damage to the garage, only our nerves. But that event was seared in my young mind like a mental tattoo. I woke up in cold sweats, with nightmares, for years later. I never forgot that night; it was like a night at the front, in some war.

But I mentioned all of this to show just how much people need law and order in our societies today. If people do whatever they feel like doing, chaos can result, and the young can be permanently damaged from events like this one that had such an impression on me. Many of our cities are much worse today, than even the inner city I grew up in. The scars of living in these lawless wastelands are like the scars and traumas that soldiers get from combat missions, only many of these inner city soldiers are ten year-olds, like I was. Our children live in these battle zones, I know because I was one of them. The law is supposed to stop things like this occurring, yet today, in the United States of America, our cities continue to be exactly the same as they were when I was ten – something is terribly wrong! But then, we do have law and order, and, we even had it back then when this happened; but the question is, is law and order enough? Is there maybe something else needed, something that will intervene even before the law does?

The laws of any Nation have their origin in the overall morality that that Nation adopts. In another essay 3 I talked about morality more fully, giving it different types:

So a general definition of morality might be: the adjustment of the individual will’s purpose so that its behavior is in accord with certain arbitrary standards of behavior that the GOOD, the individual or society takes as the norm. It is up to the individual human will to decide which morality he would follow in his own behavior. Because man has free will there is also the possibility that man could reject all morality and follow a purpose solely guided by the dictates of the laws of nature in the mortal world, in other words, the instincts of the cumulative survival instinct, with a purpose that follows only material benefit or survival (we will call this amorality). What we have mapped out here would lead to a moral spectrum in which absolute morality would exist at one extreme pole, while amorality would exist at the other extreme pole, with the bulk of mankind probably following one of the relative moralities somewhere in the middle”.

Morality is a type of innate law that lives in the hearts of all human beings, but it is also influenced by their groupings – their culture, and finally by their own individual wills. Again we are confronted with that important ‘all’ that democratic Nations find especially important, because that ‘all’ is what democracy is all about. The freedom of democracy is premised on that 'all', and the societal morality that that 'all' has built in to it, to create the laws to order our societies.

Justice lives in all of us, or it lives in none of us, but morality does not follow suit; it is something the heart comes equipped with, but it reigns only over our inner selves. And free will finally determines the individual’s morality. In societies something more is needed, to keep the behavior of all inline with the freedom that democracy promises, but because democracy guarantees certain inalienable rights that pertain to all human beings, it cannot just go according to moralities that vary somewhat from individual to individual – it must cater to the ‘all’. So something more than morality is born called law.

Law incorporates the morality of society, instead of the morality of any one or more individuals. In this way it represents the morality of all as it pertains to the control of their behaviors toward one another, instead of trying to control their beliefs. Our beliefs are under our own wills, just as our thoughts are, but in a society our actions are at the mercy of the laws of that society, because it is actions, and their associated behaviors, which determine the extent of freedom for all other members of society. Thus, these same laws that allow all the same amount of freedom, keeping any one freedom from lessening any other’s freedom, create a boundary for the freedom we experience. And in bounding freedom they also guarantee it to ‘all’ equally in scope.

But laws are said to have two parts, “the letter” and “the spirit”. The ‘letter’ is the written, strict interpretation it denotes. The ‘spirit’ is the connotations of the law, those things it implies. As in our normal use of language, we see the vast number of connotes every sentence conjures up, so with the law; ambiguity is a part of every law, and even in its writing the connotations must be searched out, for when it is interpreted they even become more important.

‘Spirit’ also echoes the spirit within which a law was written, the purpose it was meant to serve. Here, when a law is interpreted, to decide its breakage, or not, the ‘spirit’ within which it was written must be closely examined. This also entails a balance between “extenuating circumstances” and the deterrence to further breakage of the same law which that law was created to fulfill. If when a law is broken an adequate punishment is not given to deter others from breaking the same law, then the law itself is useless; for its primary purpose is this same deterrence to further breakage of the same law, which it fulfills in being that law. As I said in footnote 3 of the essay “Responsible: A Troublesome Word”:

“Love is not an excuse for evil, but the further avoidance of evil through the acceptance of responsible action”.

At the same time, the ‘spirit’ of law makes interpretation more flexible so that, as I said before in the essay “Responsible: A Troublesome Word”:

“love is so important in tempering the law with the situation at hand”.

That “situation at hand” is what will determine if indeed the law was broken, and if any mitigating circumstance should temper the punishment while not violating the law’s deterrent aspects, as mentioned above. This is the responsibility that law has to its society: it allows all to function so that freedom and justice are equally provided to all with complete impartiality.

But as my little preface to this story illustrates, laws are often not enough to stop society from letting parts of it, almost become ‘combat zones’. There is more than just laws that determine the state of a society; society needs something else to stop these “battle zones” from even existing.

What it needs is trust; and that is what our society, at least in certain segments of it has lost completely. Trust is lost, because society has lost its very function for a vast proportion of its members; people who are just barely surviving can’t understand or even contemplate trust when they look around and see so many others basking in so much overabundance – it is this vast disparity that make so many losers do the things that society detests, and break its laws because they just don’t care any more what happens. Perhaps, that was the same ‘craziness’ that overtook that arsonist so long ago, in my little story – a craziness imbedded in a hopelessness we see so often in today’s news articles about the slaughters perpetrated in our inner cities.

Laws can keep society going as long as there is a society to keep going. When you lose the trust that makes up society, there is no society, and laws are worthless. So, in the past we have seen this overcompensation in law enforcement (might makes right) used to combat the loss of society, because of the loss of this very same trust that makes society exist. A Police State then comes into existence, and freedom disappears for all. As I said in another essay 4 about the fall of the Roman Republic:

“When Rome was a united family of all families, she was invincible, as Pyrrhus, the King of Epirus, had discovered. When Caesar fell, Rome also fell to the destruction of the trust that made her the great mentor and arbiter in a world of chaos. The Empire was born, but trust was replaced with force and cruelty, which would eventually erase her and all her achievements from the minds of men. Caesar failed because he attempted a physical cure for a spiritual malady. His attempt was the only means available for him because of the limited outlook of his civilization. Christianity has broadened our outlook. And yet today we are still attempting to cure a disease of the soul with armies; is it no wonder the disease only worsens?”

Even laws cannot cure a disease of the soul, and that is just what is destroying our societies today, a disease of the soul called greed!

So what is the solution that will bring trust back to all our people? It will start by making every human being in our society feel the importance and significance every human should feel in themselves. Letting no human come to the point of hopelessness and despair that is so common in our cities right now. It means making all human beings, once again, feel like human beings, and not the hopeless, helpless creatures being led to slaughter that they now perceive themselves to be. Hopelessness, isolation, despair and alienation are the results of the attitude of the “only I count” mentality – an attitude that an economy built on the “luck of the draw”, and special interests, has brainwashed society into assuming. It has forced society into thinking that the losers are the result of their own worthlessness, instead of the result of the worthlessness of an egocentric attitude, and the broken society it has created.

But this is also the fault of religions that have created a morality that thrives on guilt and recriminations, instead of the true love of unlimited acceptance. In dabbling in the morality of children at very young ages, and setting the morality of the family through the same hypocritical values of guilt and judgments, they have splintered the human family, and driven wedges into the one solace and unity that all humans find in the family structure.

Religions must cease to be organizations that cause division, instead of unity; and they must see love not as a contract that sets up provisos based on rules, but as the same unity and solace of complete acceptance that God Itself is. They must also see that a donation-based charity is not a cure for anything, except the furtherance of an attitude that furthers the morality of greed. Every human must find self-worth, and self-dignity through being a useful member of society, not through accepting handouts laden in guilt and recrimination. Charities are band-aides on a gangrenous wound; what is needed is the cure of pride in human social responsibility, and the trust it implies. People need to know they have worth – and that that worth is acknowledged.

Fixing a broken society is not easy, especially when it has been known to be broken for so long. But we have made progress; every age has gotten a little better; I should say, a miniscule better; but even a ‘miniscule’ is better than nothing. But I think that finally, in this age, people are at last seeing all the hypocrisy clearly; in a clarity that may bode the beginning of a new mindset. If that mindset cuts through all the chaff of the media, the talking heads, the parties, the special interests and the religious authorities, we may once again see ourselves as human beings. And in seeing ourselves in this way, once again allow the human to show through.

What we are now learning, that even the religions have never grasped, is the true responsibility that being human entails; a responsibility that makes every human accountable to every other, because real freedom stems from the heart, the same place love lives; the same place unity lives; the same place any God worth its salt lives. And society is the proof of this. Society is the unity, the brotherhood / sisterhood of the human race. It is the safety net we created to allow us to be secure and united, and find our worth in the trust we generate – the same trust that allows us to be truly human.






FOOTNOTES

To return to note's origin click the footnote number at left



1 As an aside, the very controversial, Italian Mayor of Philly, Frank Rizzo, grew up right around the corner from where I lived then (although a generation before I lived there), on Rosewood Street, in a similar little row home; today, they call it “Rizzo Street”. Later he would become a cop (they called him, "the Cisco Kid", after a TV show star at that time), and even the Chief of Police of Philly. I remember, one night when that cop arrested my dad and his buddies for gambling (a "penny-anti" card game for nickels and dimes) on the corner stoop where they hung out. He had warned them that gambling for money in public was against the law, and the next time he caught them at it, he would lock them all up. My dad, sort of scoffed at that, and played again, got caught, and got locked up. Frank Rizzo was not a man to trifle with; he lived by the letter of the law, as my poor dad found out. My dad got the worst of it; when my mom got the call to come and bail him out of jail, she was furious, and she let all hell break loose on him. My dad learned his lesson, and later, when Rizzo ran for mayor, my dad was one of his staunchest supporters.

One of my greatest regrets was never having the opportunity to meet Mayor Rizzo, although I came close. During the summer of 1976, when the Nation was celebrating the American Bicentennial, I got a work-study job for that summer, as a tour guide, in a Revolutionary War Fort, called Fort Mifflin, that the Army Corp of Engineers had restored. On the fourth of July, I was supposed to take the Mayor for a tour of the fort; unfortunately, he had a change of plans at the last minute, so I ended up taking a three star general and his entourage around the fort instead.



2 Nothing seems to change; fear and bravados are the customary kinds of feelings and behaviors you find in the inner cities, a typical result of gangs and the factions they revolve around; it has been the same from the time of Julius Caesar (he lived in a neighborhood similar to the one I lived in; one of the Roman poets of a later time called this neighborhood ‘Clamosa’, loosely translated as ‘bedlam’) up through the time of the Renaissance (note the gang related street fights in Florence, in Cellini’s time, one of which took the life of his brother; see Cellini’s “Autobiography”) even into our own day.



3 Please see my essay: “Morality and the Human search for Justice”



4 Please see my essay: “The Loss of Trust”





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Originally Published:

July 3, 2012

Revised:

January 2, 2014