Saturday, May 21, 2011

Judgment Days

For nearly five days I got to see the U.S. criminal justice system close-up as a juror on a child rape case. The presumption of innocence was foremost in my mind as I listened to witness after witness describe how a teenage girl gradually let the world know about a set of events that happened when she was just seven years old. There was no physical evidence, and the versions of the girl's story that emerged over time were not entirely consistent with each other. If I were using the standards of an engineer or physical scientist, these facts alone would have led me to vote “not guilty.” What led me to vote the other way started with the realization that such standards are not those of a “reasonable person,” whose judgment must be the basis of such a decision.

For one thing, I learned that the pattern of disclosure for such events typically follows the pattern we saw, if disclosure even happens at all. Also, the minds of young children are so different from those of adults that it is unreasonable to use the standards of adults when appraising them. There is also the simple issue of time: Unlike a repeatable physical phenomenon that can be remeasured, there is no objective way to verify what happened to a person several years in the past where any physical evidence has likely been effectively erased. What you have left is a level of confidence that the circumstances were as described by the accuser, that she had more motive for telling the truth than not, and that the overall picture of events painted by the verifiable evidence and testimony was overwhelmingly more consistent with the defendant being guilty than innocent of the crimes he was accused of.

You will recall that Osama bin Laden was executed right before I was called into jury duty. During the trial, I found myself agreeing with an astonishingly few observers who were concerned that the president might have assumed a new power that is fundamentally unhealthy for a democracy, the power to kill anyone he deems a threat without any review. My father's generation went out of its way to bring the Nazis (a far greater threat) to justice, recognizing that checks on government power (and mob rule) are more important than checks on individual behavior, even as many of them had witnessed the carnage first-hand. There is also an important learning experience to go through, which leads to both understanding of how to prevent bad things from happening in the future, and how the process of justice can be improved so that everyone's rights are adequately protected. I was seeing that latter process working first-hand, while hearing the president I helped elect call into question the mental stability of people who suggested he might be wrong for not following it himself.

I was barely back at work when I learned of a crazy prediction that the world was scheduled to end soon. Such a statement might seem ironic coming from someone who has made a hobby out of finding out if-and-when humanity might become extinct (my own projections are just a few decades off) -- “crazy” is relative, I suppose. Judgment Day is now, and if our president can execute whoever he wants (or at least with the fig-leaf assurance of his handpicked attorney general), the putative creator of the Universe is capable of doing much more, with far less of a check on his power. While the Christian “right” might disagree with the timing of the rapture, they appear to have no problem believing that it is imminent, even as they dismiss the overwhelming evidence for human-induced climate change that is far more likely to make their worst nightmares real.

I personally stopped believing in the supernatural (or at least acknowledging the possibility of its existence) when I started testing the core assumptions in my life the same way that I tested other beliefs, taking the chance that I would feel a lot worse about the results, because feeling bad about reality was preferable to feeling so good about a delusion that I might end up creating a far worse reality by acting on it. To me, that's the best argument for taking the long, hard path toward finding justice, for jumping through hoops to improve the outcome for everyone affected by a decision, rather than taking a short cut or putting one's faith in a higher power (human or not). While there is always the chance that we will be wrong, we have an obligation to reduce that chance, or the future which provides the ultimate judgment of all of us may be far harsher than we can imagine.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Work Life

As could be expected, going back to work was a bit of a shock to my system. During seven months at home, I had gotten used to no commuting, being able to follow my creative instincts, and having almost total control over my environment. All that is now reversed: I spend more than an hour and a half on the road each day; must focus on what someone else wants me to do – even if I get a stray thought that my gut tells me to investigate or write about; and have only an iPod to shield me from the conversations erupting around my open cubicle. Not that I'm complaining: I can now pay my bills, help a large non-profit healthcare system operate more efficiently, and continue my research on the side (which has included a major revision to my population-consumption model). In addition, I've caught up on some reading and gotten a better idea of where my future focus should be.

This week, I've had to take a minor break from everything and learning first-hand how rigorous the U.S. legal system is in assuring that everyone is treated fairly in the service of justice. I can't help comparing it to how our government starts and executes our so-called wars, where killing people – the ultimate penalty – is based on innuendo and fear. While much of the rest of the country was cheering the assassination of Osama bin Laden, I was wondering, along with a minority, whether it wouldn't have been better to try him like the Nazis, and whether it might have set a dangerous precedent for effectively dictatorial power.