Sunday, January 25, 2009

Good or Bad

I've just finished reading John LeCarre's A Most Wanted Man, which I really enjoyed. At the same time, I've been re-reading Leon Hale's Bonney's Place. Two more different books would be hard to find. Yet...the subject matter is the same. Let me explain.

In the Le Carre thriller, the Muslim target is a public figure whose charitable contributions are said to be 95% "good" and only 5% "bad." The five percent relates to the money and goods siphoned off to fund terrorists. So the question becomes: is that five percent bad enough to cancel out the vast preponderance of good works? The Americans in this story think so. And so (spoiler alert) he's basically toast.

In Bonney's Place the question is whether a man who bilks an old man out of a considerable sum of money can possibly be anything other than "bad." This man also spotlights deer out of season, repeatedly cheats a pompous customer, slaughters the same customer's heifer and serves it to the poor people of his community, and performs other larcenies, here and there. At the same time, he takes in people who need help and performs many small acts of kindness in his community.

It seems to me that our society has entered a time where many of our citizens desperately want clarity between actions that may be called good, or bad. But instead we find ever larger situations where the actions encompass both polarities. I'm thinking of things like how to treat people suspected of terrorism when they are arrested; and how we respond to suspicions of terrorist activities. There is no clear and immediate answer, and we grope toward an understanding of the boundaries we cannot allow ourselves to cross.

Our new administration will be caught in the complexities of this process, but it may be able to handle it in a more satisfactory fashion than did its predecessor. Because of the value the president places on the pre-eminence of the rule of law, we have drawn a boundary for ourselves. That will help guide us, and possibly allow us to avoid the pitfalls of ideology.

Without law, there is no civilization. When we must deal with nations and tribes who reject common understandings of law, including their own religious law, and we respond by doing the same, we abandon all concepts of civilization. I suggest that this constitutes another boundary for us. If we must abandon our civilization in order to prevail against the enemy, what have we achieved in the victory?