The following story is really a dialogue. Unlike the last time I posted one of these, I’m going to preface it with a brief explanation so you know where I’m coming from. Maybe this way you can read it in the right spirit and hopefully enjoy it more—and ideally offer useful feedback.
One of the virtues of the dialogue-form, as Plato knew, is that you can explore the relationships between kinds of people and their beliefs. “Kinds of people” has a double-significance here: it means both intellectual and moral types of people—the young, the old, the self-absorbed, the pious, the intelligent, etc.—as well as classes of people, like politicians, lawyers and teachers. You can combine the two types’ perennial features (e.g., impulsive youth) with the conventional wisdom of the class (defense lawyers) and then set this type of character off against another. It’s in these cases conflict, after all, that you really get a chance to examine—to think through—what’s at stake for different people in the context of a debate.
In this dialogue, I set off two such characters: the working class curmudgeon against the budding lawyer over the perennial question of law versus justice. It’s not by chance that I made the lawyer school student, John, young. He’s at the point where he knows about the law, but he hasn’t yet learned all the rhetorical strategies that experts learn to deflect and thereby insulate themselves from criticism of their ideological commitments.
Bear in mind, after all, that the fully-fledged experts in any field not only learn their discipline, but they also learn rhetorical strategies to defend the particular ideological commitments typical of their class, which might otherwise prove fatal to their sense of themselves. Hence, it’s fundamental for the plot movement that John be young and inexperienced in this regard, since it keeps him from shutting down Uncle Tuck.
Now, I’m not trying to make some point about justice or law here—some profound argument that you ought to hear and obey. Instead, I’m trying to epitomize two senses of justices, which may well be incompatible. Hopefully, there are enough unexpected turns, quasi-persuasive arguments and moments of recognition (everyone knows an Uncle Tuck) to make it enjoyable. Sensitive types should be forewarned, however, that there is some foul language.
Finally, keep in mind that this is a working draft. Feel free to note any errors you’ve picked out, though keep I mind that Uncle Tuck sometimes makes up words.
The Impact Statement
By W. H. Dean
“That sonafabitch just got away with murder!” declared Uncle Tuck glaring at the television set.
“Mitch Rogers, you mean?” said his nephew John.
“That no good piece of shit killed that pharmacist and now he’s getting’ off Scott-free.”
“He did get four years,” John offered meekly.
“Four years! With time-served and early parole he’ll be out in a week. That’s justice in this country nowadays. Kill a woman for a bottle of pills and you get four goddamn years.”
John didn’t usually agree or argue with his uncle. There was no point. The old coot got irate over just about everything—the weather, taxes, the price of eggs, Democrats, Republicans, the special names for coffee cup sizes at Starbucks. He was, John often said to his friends, your typical, cranky, old, working class curmudgeon that he was stuck dragging from appointment to appointment during his summer breaks.
All the same, John was second year law at City and this time he felt compelled to defend the ways of his chosen profession—especially when it seemed too obvious.
“Well, he didn’t actually kill her,” John said. “He pushed her. She fell, hit her head and eventually died, yes, but he didn’t form the requisite intent.”
“Wo-ho now! ‘Requisite intent’ that’s a big word for a young fella. You sure you can hold onto it without fallin’ over?” said the older man, planting his hand on the armrest and turning to face his nephew.
John was annoyed. He didn’t like being bullied by his uncle: “I can hold on to it—whatever that means—because that’s the law. You need more than to cause an accident to get murder.”
“So that’s what they teach you at that fancy college? Dreamin’ up excuses for killers?” said Uncle Tuck.
“I don’t like Mitchell anymore than you do. I went to school with him for God’s sake—lived in the same neighborhood. But you have to follow the law even in these cases or you don’t have any law at all.” John felt proud of his detachment from it all.
“I’m not talkin’ about the law, Mr. Lawyer Man. You can have all that. I’m talkin’ about justice. That ain’t justice. And when the law don’t look like justice, then the law’s wrong—plain and simple.”
“So what would you have done?” asked John.
“C’mon Uncle Tuck. You don’t really believe that,” retorted John, though he thought Uncle Tuck probably did believe it.
“Oh-ho! Now you’re a mind reader too? You not only know the law, you know what I believe and what I don’t to boot—goddamn genius you are!”
“Look,” John said, becoming a little irate himself. “He pushed her. We just saw the replay of the security footage. He didn’t stab her or shoot her or whack her with a club. He pushed her. She tripped and fell and hit her head on the counter. That’s how she died.”
Confident that the case of involuntary manslaughter was obvious, and that his uncle couldn’t fathom the distinction, John added an explanation: “So you can say he killed her by pushing her, but he didn’t intend it—his action didn’t constitute the intent to commit murder. That’s the law and it’s justice: you can’t execute people for doing something they didn’t, namely, intending to kill.”
“And what about her family? Her two kids goin’ through life without a mother because some no good piece of shit needed wirin’ up? What do you think the father should tell them? ‘A piece of furniture killed your mother kids; the bad man you see on TV just pushed her a little.”
“C’mon. That’s a red herring. It’s got nothing to do with the legalities and you know it,” said John. He resented the old man’s rhetorical guilt trip. But he was beginning to regret initiating an argument with the old codger in the first place.
“You’re damn right it matters,” said Uncle Tuck. “You think you’ve got it all figured out, don’t ya? But you don’t know shit about justice.”
“And you’re an expert?” John shot back.
“Never claimed to be. But I know that when you’ve got another fifty years on you, you’ll look back and say you were a dumb shit right now. That means between you and me, I’m closer to an expert than you are,” said Uncle Tuck.
“That doesn’t make much sense. But if you want to finish your rant, go ahead, I won’t stop you,” said the nephew, who now resolved himself to hearing the end of it without further objection.
“That’s better. Now listen. All you’re doin’ is watchin’ some movin’ around on a videotape and you’re saying what’s what. But you gotta’ look at the big picture—the whole story of what happened here. I’m okay leavin’ the touchy-feely stuff to the side, because we don’t know the woman. What counts for us as taxpayers is the numbers and you got the wrong ones in your head.
“You add things up like we’re all just one person down without this pharmacist, and that’s the end of it. But you’re wrong. Dead wrong. To get the real cost, you gotta look at it a different way.”
John heard Uncle Tuck pause, waiting, he knew, for him to ask the question. He obliged.
“Glad you asked. Take this Mitchell—I know him too—he’s never been good for nothin’. He spent his whole life stealin’, getting drunk and stoned and goin’ to jail, then gettin’ out and doing the same thing all over again. He never contributed nothin’ but shit and misery to everyone around him. He’s been nothin’ but a burden on taxpayers and his mother and everyone else unlucky enough to know him. He’s the reason every Johnny Lunchbox in his neighborhood is stuck with high insurance rates.
“But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He costs us for cops and courts and judges and jails and welfare and social workers and doctors and ambulances and security cameras and everything else— he’s like one big black hole, suckin’ in everything and puttin’ out nothing but shit.
“Now he kills this pharmacist. She was paying taxes, raising kids and probably volunteering too. She’s the ones we need to keep everything goin’. She’s the one paying for people like him.
“That asshole Mitchell not only wrecked her family and put an end to all the good she would’ve kept on doin’, but he knocked out the share she was paying too.
“So you think about that. You start lookin’ at the great big minus sign on the whole world’s accountin’ books that Mitchell Rogers caused. You start countin’ real justice—everything good people put in and bad people take out, and then you tell me about your hair-splittin’ legal distinctions between pushin’ and intendin’ and all the rest of that shit.” Satisfied that he’d covered the essentials of justice, Uncle Tuck leaned back into his chair to await a reply.
As hard as it was, John had to admit that Uncle Tuck somehow had half of a point. But what he’d admit to himself and what he admit to Uncle Tuck were different things. “Whatever you say, Uncle Tuck,” John said waving his hand in supplication, “whatever you say.
Uncle Tuck smiled to himself.