Breaking the Rules

Posted on June 17, 2018


We all would like to be good “law-abiding” citizens, not breaking the rules or doing anything illegal. And, for the most part, we know the rules. Just read the Ten Commandments for starters.

But there is a part of me that doesn’t mind breaking the rules. Law-abiding though I may be in the main, I occasionally break the rules, probably not enough to be arrested, but just enough to put me outside of rules and codes and laws.

Just the other day I was in a rush to get somewhere. As I dashed around the house, my computer printer jammed and then as I went to close the door to our bedroom so as not to wake my wife – it was early – the door handle came off in my hand. It just needed a tiny screw which had fallen out but I was moving fast and things were going against me. As I  reached a railroad crossing the lights started flashing and I gunned it.

I suffered a short twinge of guilt and then a longer one for having behaved in such a contrary fashion, and I asked God to forgive me and of course he did. But I had broken the rules. And I had done something stupid to boot.

Anyone who hasn’t broken a rule for any reason can now stop reading, adjust their halo on and float way with their angelic wings flapping in the wind.

Anyone who has broken a rule or skirted around a law join the rest of us humans. Guilty as charged.

But, you may reasonably argue, aren’t we are a “law-abiding” nation. We are a not “law-breakers” and wily-nily anarchists given to flouting the rule of law and authority.

I heard a candidate for our state supreme court claim the other day that she promised to apply the laws faithfully. She wasn’t being elected to create law, by which I suspect he meant he was a strict constructionist, not interpreting laws to suit their own ideology.

But we are nation a law-breakers, aren’t we? The Declaration of Independence of 1776 broke with King and Parliament and in doing so flouted both law and traditions.

Were people like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson truly law-breakers? It is not simple. They argued the English were breaking their own rules with respect to taxes and the rule of law in the colonies, and so we had a right, indeed, an obligation, to break with the law-breakers back in London.

Our own history is filled with disobedience and those who broke with law and traditions, and they bear such distinguished names in American history like Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (dates). They were, in fact, appealing to a higher authority and morality than mere law. I apologize to my many attorney friends who I admire, but law is but an expression of the higher truths.

Thoreau, along with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, were the acknowledged founders of a prominent school of thought in the nineteenth century called Transcendentalism which stressed the inherent goodness of individuals and nature. Among the Transcendentalists, self-reliance and non-conformity were principles many embraced, and Thoreau left us an essay on civil disobedience (“Resistance to Civil Government”) that is a ringing denunciation of government at the expense of the liberty and morality of the individual.

The setting was the war between Mexico and the U. S. in 1848. Thoreau had already stopped paying taxes in protest against slavery and the possibility that the war on Mexico was simply another way for Southerners to expand slavery into the Southwest. He spent one night in jail before a (probably embarrassed) relative anonymously paid his taxes, but in 1849 he published his denunciation of the war and right of an individual to break the law if the laws were enacted by a government in unjust ways, like protecting slavery and invading Mexico.

Over a century later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was thrown in the Birmingham, Alabama jail for violating some local statutes and King penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which stated boldly that injustice or justice postponed gave people a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action (to end segregation). And as the laws and traditions defending segregation were attacked and dismantled, or defended, in the U. S., “obeying orders” as an excuse for one’s actions took a beating at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II.

The high Nazi officials put on trial for participating in the wholesale slaughter and extermination of Jews across Europe defended themselves by claiming they were just “obeying orders” in a society and culture where laws and authority were supreme. The allied judges from the U. S., England, France, and the Soviet Union found them guilty nonetheless of crimes against humanity, in effect judging the Nazis against the higher moral laws that should govern us all.

Now, don’t argue with the trooper who pulls you over for speeding by giving him some transcendental argument about the primacy of the individual over government. He may just double the fine and if you keep claiming your rights, give you chance to spend a few hours in jail to consider the consequences of questioning the validity of traffic laws.

And don’t tell him you read in my column that breaking laws and challenging traditions is a tried and true American way to preserve our liberties. I may find myself in a cell next to yours, but, then again, I think the Thoreaus and MLK,jrs of our world were right.

Published as “Sometimes, breaking the rules is required” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday May 20, 2018

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