Saturday, February 18, 2006

Crime and Punishment

When the first rumours of this God-person's wrath reached the city of Sodom, no one paid them much attention. Oh, the men discussed it over their cups, of course, and one woman ran naked through the streets shouting 'the end is nigh! the end is nigh!' to the amusement of the general public, but the general consensus was that this God guy was just another of those desert crackpots who go around shouting curses at everyone they meet. Pretty soon, the threat of God's anger was a standing joke in the city - 'it's all God's doing' was a standard refrain for any gambler who got suspiciously lucky at the dice games, and one popular entertainer even had a whole stand-up routine about the God threat ("you smite my back, and I'll smite yours"). It was just one of those things.

When the reports and seriousness of the threat kept multiplying however, a few of the more serious-minded citizens began to pay some attention. Like a man waking up to the queasiness of a hangover that tells him he may have had too much to drink, the city of Sodom began to consider, for the first time, the possibility that there might be some truth to the rumours. That perhaps there was, indeed, some large and alien force that threatened their fair city.

Indignation followed. Who was this God anyway? How dare he presume to judge them, to tell them how to live their lives? Who asked for his opinion? A town meeting was called to discuss the issue. For the first time in living memory, the people of Sodom were entirely sober, and the unaccustomed clarity of this had worn them raw at the edges, so that the crowd that gathered in the public square was growling and bitter. A two day stubble of a crowd, ready to be rubbed the wrong way.

For a while the meeting consisted of little more than a chorus of shouted insults. All forms of violence imaginable were wished upon the absent God, every conceivable assault on his genitalia was loudly proclaimed, and each new cry was met with a cheer of approbation, sprinkled with the odd laugh. When the gathering had got the spleen a little out its system, however, the shouting died down, and a discussion began as to the best way to respond to this unexpected threat.

Some people were of the opinion that there was no need to do anything at all - this God thing was clearly a hoax and even paying it so much attention as to call a town meeting over it was to give the delinquents who were spreading these stories too much attention. Others argued that they thought God was a lie too, but it was just possible that he might actually exist, and as such it made sense for the city to be ready to defend itself - 'better safe than sorry' was their war-cry. This group argued that immediate defensive measures be introduced - the standing guard forces of the city tripled, a perimeter of defense built around the city, and special provisions made to thoroughly search and question every visitor who entered Sodom, in case he happened to be one of the dreaded 'angels' that this God person was supposed to have working for him. Still others, seeing the prospect of an endless siege against an enemy whose very existence was dubious at best, argued for a counter-strike. Why wait around for this God person to come to us?, they said. Why not put together an army and go after him instead? A few people pointed out that God hadn't actually done anything, and they didn't really know that he was planning to, but their objections were brushed quickly aside - he had threatened to attack, hadn't he? He was generally believed to have powerful and destructive weapons, wasn't he? Well then. Instead, the chief objection to this preemptive strike idea was that no one among the assembled knew where this God person was to be found, or what manner and strength of forces he might possess. Given that, any attempts to engage him in actual battle were deemed impractical.

The discussion having thus come full circle, and leaving the residents of Sodom with a choice between laying in perpetual wait for an enemy who may never come, or going out to engage an enemy they could not find, a man emerged from the back of the crowd, and having circled his way up to the main stage, began to speak.

"Good citizens of Sodom", said he, "I think we are approaching this matter the wrong way. To engage an enemy we know nothing of, whether abroad or at home, is mere foolishness. Let us instead pay closer attention to what this God-person accuses us of, and take due cognizance of his charges."

"Hear me out!" he said, as a murmur rose from the crowd against the suggestion that anything this God was saying be taken seriously. "The thought that occurs to me is this: What, exactly is the nature of crime? What does guilt consist of? Surely in the sense that a crime is something a man can be held responsible for, it must be true that it is something he may choose to do. If a man has no freedom of choice in the matter, if it is the society he inhabits, or the system he lives in, that makes him act the way he does, then he cannot be considered guilty, no matter what you may think of his actions. You may find the sound of breathing noisome, for instance, but you cannot blame a man for making it, because he has no other alternative. It is only the things that we do on our volition that we can be fairly tried or punished for."

"But how is this question of choice to be decided? How can we know when something is a choice that a man makes, rather than a thing he is forced into by the world? Simple. We ask ourselves whether there is any other who lives in the same world, who has undergone more or less the same set of experiences and who still acts differently from the man in question. If there be other men who have acted differently in the same circumstances, then choice is possible, and the man under consideration stands condemned. But if there be no one who has made a choice differently, then we can safely claim that the fault is not in the man but in the things that attend him, and we cannot, in all conscience, punish him for that. Without innocence there is no guilt. This is not simply, indeed, a matter of proof - it is also a question of reciprocal justice - for how can a man accuse another of a crime unless he be first innocent of it himself?

"What's your point?", "That's fine, but how is this helping us?", "What is this guy going on about?", the crowd asked.

The man smiled. "My point is this. We stand accused, by this God person, of all sorts of selfish and depraved acts. But what is to keep us from arguing that the fault for these is not ours but lies instead with something in our surroundings? Perhaps it is the harshness of our climate, we could say, or the thinness of the air we breathe, that makes us the way we are. We are not depraved, fiendish men by nature, it is Sodom that has made us thus. After all, it is not as though these acts that God condemns us for are specific to a few among us, we are all equally implicated in them - and the sin, being general, can safely be assumed to be no sin at all."

"As long, that is, as there are no exceptions. Is there any man in Sodom who does not join in our practices, does not partake of our general pleasures? We all know there is - Lot. This upstart, this solitary living hermit with his fancy ideas and limited understanding, this true pervert who dares to judge us, dares to refute the generalisation of our selves onto the world. He is the truly unnatural one among us, he is the one who deserves to be attacked, to be punished, but instead it is we who are forced to bear him like a thorn in our side, pricking our otherwise perfect certainty in our own righteousness. Is it not mere egoism on his part to claim this superiority over us, to constantly throw his own smug chasteness in our faces?"

"Yes, that's right!" "That bastard Lot! I never did care for him" "Down with Lot! Let's kill him and be done with it!".

The man let the cries die down, then proceeded: "My proposal, then, is this. Let us accuse Lot of stupidity and egoism. Let us force him to admit that he is wrong and his ideas misplaced. Let us force him to apologise to us, then exile him from our city. Once this is done, should any God appear to render judgment over us, we can then safely point to the generality of our failures, and blame them all on the place in which we dwell. Surely no rational being will dare to judge us harshly then. Instead, even God shall have empathy for us then, he shall show us kindness, he shall pity us for having lost the opportunity to be fine, upright men by being forced to live in this place".

And so it was done. The bewildered Lot was dragged out of his home that evening and brought before the townspeople, who ridiculed him and ordered him to repent and apologise. Lot stuck bravely to his guns, of course, arguing with cold logic alone that he was in the right. But these arguments, going so against the grain of the assembled mob, fell on deaf ears. Every argument he made to defend himself was met with howls of abusive protest from the crowd, who then proceeded to accuse him of excessive pride and egoism. Finally, after half the night had passed in this sort of shouting, Lot and his family were exiled from the city of Sodom by unanimous decree, and a posse of town people escorted them to the edge of the city, from where they watched them leave. It is said that Lot and his family were so afraid as they left that they never even turned to look back at their prosecutors, whose jeering cries filled the desert night behind them.

It is done, said the crowd, when it was all over. Now we are justified. Now we are safe.