Outside the Law: Persistent Memories of “The Star Chamber”

“Disgusted with criminals escaping the judicial system via technicalities, an idealistic young judge investigates an alternative method for punishing the guilty.” — IMDB, The Star Chamber, 1983

I saw The Star Chamber a long time ago, but the thing I remember most is being perfectly caught in the moral dilemma from the story’s first minutes. (Michael Douglas is above-average as usual; Hal Holbrook is amazing.)

Have we all not been there on some level?

You are doing what the system tells you is right. You follow the rules of the system, with the presumption that somewhere in all of your effort is justice. That outcome may not be obvious, but you just have to believe that following an agreed upon protocol is better than going rogue and making up your own rules.

It has to be. If it’s not, how are we to live?

If you are not familiar with The Star Chamber plot, you can read a good summary on Wikipedia. A young, idealistic judge who believes two child killers have been released on a legal technicality is recruited into a secret society of judges whose members order hits on criminals who “fall through the cracks” in the system. It is hard not to pull for this illegal but satisfying attempt to make bad men pay for their egregious crimes against humanity. You know from the beginning, however, that there is no way, no matter how much you want it to, that this can ever work.

It’s a classic tale of becoming the very thing you are trying to eradicate.

The writing is on the wall, but I still get drawn into this idea, the idea that we can fight a broken system by refusing to play by its rules. Beyond that refusal, we can create alternative systems that punish the corruption of the others. It all should work as long as no one screws up.

The thing I keep coming back to in these stories, the fictional ones and the ones I live in my own life, is the terrible mistake of believing that human beings can ever be part of something that isn’t flawed. It’s just the way we are. We want to be good, we want justice, we seek the right, but so often we are left bleeding from the shards of an imperfect world no matter how hard we try to fix things. It’s such an ancient understanding it fuels most creation myths, and yet somehow we struggle to accept what we know and have known since human beings started taking a look at ourselves.

There is no end to the debate over government vs. private business when it comes to which system offers the most ethical environment for decision-making. Government and public systems are fraught with rules and regs that often paralyze action and lead to limp results; by the time you schlog through all of the dos and do nots, you almost forget why you wanted to do anything in the first place. Private business can be efficient, but the efficiency can leave gaping holes in thoughtful processes, and cuts the time often needed to review a decision for consequences.

In The Star Chamber, a hit is ordered on presumed killers, only for the judges to learn the men were not in fact responsible for the death that prompted the order. That’s not a problem, they reason. We know they are bad men. They did something. If they are not to die for this crime, they surely deserve to die for other sins.

While my personal ethical lapses may seem minor compared to those in the movie, I know that they often trend around the same kind of thinking. This whole situation is wrong! It’s so messed up. Anything I do to fix some of this mess must be better than living with this broken situation.

Except it never, ever works that way. Ever. Not in the long run.

Prayers today for the family and friends of the slain U.S. Ambassador in Libya.

Prayers for my friend who is in the middle of an election year mess at work.

Prayers for my country as we continue to grieve and seek justice over a decade after the terrorist attacks.

Just….prayers for all of us.

(You can view one of the better movie clips available online here: http://www.artistdirect.com/video/star-chamber/55261)

ISO: Legitimacy

A philosophy professor of mine recently summed up human nature this way:

Human beings are legitimacy seeking creatures.  We want to know what the right thing to do is, and we will move heaven and earth to persuade ourselves that whatever we’ve done is somehow justifiable.

This came up after a couple of hours of our class discussing the ethics of cannibalism at sea, so you can imagine we had struggled through some weighty life and death problems in a short time span.  Our heads were swimming with issues and questions, and when our prof dropped the concept above you could hear in the room’s silence each person’s recognition on some level of this reality.

It’s a fascinating idea.

We all have a need to articulate our decisions in an ethical framework, but the drama creeps — or barrels — in when our frameworks are different.  Slightly different, a little bit of drama.  Very different?  War.

That is how we are, and it is hard to deny or ignore once it gets into your mind.  I find myself thinking, “Should I do this?  Should I do that?”  and quite often it matters not one whit to anyone but me.  There can be nearly nonexistent consequences beyond myself, and yet somehow I go through the right/wrong process whether it be an enormous decision affecting others or simply a choice affecting me.

Ethical decision-making is incredibly complex if you take it seriously.  The world is full of black-and-white moralists who want us all to believe along with them that the world and people in it are simple things.  Just follow this law, or that rule, or what that spiritual authority is believed to have said, and everything will be fine.  What evidence there is to support this idea, especially in the context of occasionally conflicting laws/rules/texts is not clear to me, but that does not stop it from being incredibly popular.

To be quite frank I’ve dropped a lot of handwringing over the years compared to how I used to be.  I once heard someone say, “Guilt is a useless emotion” and I’ve never forgotten it.  It changed my life.  Agonizing over things I cannot undo is pointless.  But attempting to resolve the decisions I have made into an ethical framework that works for me is important and ongoing in my life.  Naturally this begs the question, what the heck kind of person retrofits his or her ethics to assuage a fevered conscience?

Apparently, every kind.

Image credit: Follow Steph