Tag Archives: crime

Liberty and Justice

Go into the judicial system on any day of the week and you will find America. If you are called for jury duty you will discover that America’s finger is on the pulse of crime and punishment, not do-gooding. Not exemplary citizenship, mind you, just the aftermath of bad behavior, cause and effect, action and reaction. Damage control. And when the judicial system summons you, it states that “jury service is one of the highest duties of citizenship and it is an essential element of our democratic society.” In the jurors’ waiting room, your first taste of America is of the melting pot, a stew of multi-cultural, -national, -lingual, -ethnic people thrown together in ways in which they would not ordinarily be in contact. The bond that holds this chemical stew together is boredom and inconvenience. Names are called and the evidence of the incredible range of cultural backgrounds rings out like freedom from Asia, the British Isles, Africa, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and places which you don’t quite know exist: Pin Po Pan – did I hear this name right? And so we all sit, stewing.

Apparently, crime is so prevalent that it is categorized, into criminal and civil cases. Which is worse, and what is the difference? The thing is, we Americans seem to commit both with gusto since there are so many trials to choose from. And this is just one day, and right before Independence Day. No independence from crime, it seems. More names are called, at least six groups of thirty to sixty members each while I am still in this holding room. It is like a factory, churning out jurors as fast as the wrong-doers can do wrong. Though it is a backlog, a stutter of time like a tape delay, with the resulting action of juror-gathering way behind the actual perpetration. We potential jurors have no say in the matter but we are randomly selected to help determine the yea or nay status of our fellow citizens. Thumbs up or down? Jury of our peers? Hmm, I don’t know anyone who does these sorts of things.

I have fallen into a group for a civil case, a potentially heart-wrenching (actually quite literally) monetary duel between a pharma-industrial giant and a small victim of scientific paternalism. It is potentially a hot case, but one of so many other similar ones that have involved oodles of money and irreparable harm. The law, it seems, is not there to protect the innocent – the law is retrograde; the law is not preventative, it is, rather, there only to fight for reparations. After the fact. Pay to play.

But back to America on its birthday. Oh, that’s right, this is America. Sadly, this is what America has become, or maybe has always been: an irascible, angry mob of malcontents and the powerful targets of our collective rage who are quite adept at duck and cover techniques. In a way, it’s just like our assembled juror group awaiting its fate in the courtroom. We are angry about the careless way we are cattle-chuted into this place, left standing in hallways, sitting unmoving for hours in a room that is either too hot or too cold, left uninformed and, in a punishing way, treated like the perpetrators of crimes rather than the arbitrators of innocence or guilt. What high duty exactly?

What has happened here? What happened to the promise of America? It is and always has been about money. The placeness of money. But there is no placeness of money, in fact it totally lacks placeness. Money is withdrawn or rewarded, depending on the jurors’ decision, or time is the payment if you have no money. Jurisprudence is a kind of banking system.

So I sit in this disgruntled place of those caught in a web, or caught with their pants down, or just caught, or caught up in some bizarre or hellish nightmare of desperation. We are all caught in this system today; many of us avoid the nets, some swim right into them. This is not the America I want to celebrate today, in this way. But here it is. There is nothing so appropriate as this for finding America. I and all my fellow Americans have washed up on this shore of the judicial stage. Law makers and law enforcers. Laws are made, laws are broken, lives are made, lives are broken. It’s the system of balances, weights and measures. Just like the weighing of gold. Nothing of value really is measurable.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Random

The Locked Room

In the subset of literature that, for no lack of you-pick-it labels, goes by “detective fiction” or “crime fiction” or “mystery novels” or a half-dozen others, one of the classic amuse-bouches is that of the locked-room story. Depending on which absolutist promontory you stand on – my foothold, quite securely, is on the peak of crime fiction / police procedural, leaning more to the American hard-boiled than the Christie drawing-room mechanical – the locked room is either the epitome of brilliant writing and detection, or a slippery trope of gimmickry and trickery. I kind of like them, the way I like any good, clever puzzle, although they are often devoid of real characters in their slavish concentration on a narrative that is less whodunit or whydunit than howdunit.

To explain: While a locked-room mystery needn’t involve a murder, it usually does, just to up the ante. The story usually goes like this: Someone is noticeably missing, or an apartment-building neighbor detects “that smell,” or a landlord can’t get into a rented room, or the door to the den in an ancestral blue-blood manse can’t be opened and the key is nowhere to be found and Lord Grosvenor hasn’t been seen since dinner, or the high-tech computerized keypad (with iris ID) can’t be activated because nobody knows the PIN number. In all these cases, the door is broken down and, alas, a body is found, slumped over a desk, or at the center of the floor, or someplace instantly discoverable. But here’s the hump: the room was locked from the inside, yet the culprit is not inside, and somehow got out – but how? There are no signs of forced entry, or exit. How does one commit a murder (and sometimes in exotic, arcane fashion) in a locked room – often trying to make it look like suicide? How’d the killer get in, then get out? And what is it about the scene – or absent from the scene – that solves the mystery? (I’ve just finished one, an early Martin Beck procedural by the excellent Scandinavian team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, titled, appropriately enough, The Locked Room, an airier-than-usual foray for the writers, more in an 87th Precinct vein, especially one of those Ed McBain corkers involving the Isola cops’ devilish Moriarty, the Deaf Man. The Beck locked-room story has a less baroque solution than most, but, as with most, is far-fetched; many are just brain-twizzlers stretched to 200 pages, and many of them cheat a little by not giving you a pertinent detail, or by basing it all on facts or motivations that are, essentially, unrealistic. Still, the Beck is the one that got me to thinking.)

What hit me this time around, in my reading, is that far beyond being just an entertainment form – a disposable diversion that we read quickly, are engaged and entertained by and then almost immediately forget  – it is clear that locked-room mysteries are, in fact, metaphors. Actually, that realization merits a “duh.” But, while some or most will see the metaphor as one of an existentialist expression of life, I see it, for the purposes of our explorations here, as a metaphor for placeness and art, and of art-making, and even of art criticism. For years now, I’ve thought of the act of creating, whether it be writing or fine arts or even performance, as a painting of oneself into a corner and then finding one’s way out (or not); it used to be that it was important to find the exit path without leaving footprints in the wet paint, but these days that is no longer a necessity: some of the best art leaves tell-tale tread marks, and gladly and purposely smooshes the perfectly coated surface, in attempts at modern or post-modern “transparency.”

But, really, isn’t being an artist a lot more like finding oneself in the placeness of a room locked from the inside, alone, committing the “crime,” keeping the culprit world outside, and, in a sense, waiting for the curious and interest-piqued “detectives” to break down the door and discover you and your work, and your stage-posed ingenuity? And doesn’t the locked-room describe the art lover, who enters that mysterious place and finds a scene that needs “solving,” that demands an understanding of not only its methods but its meaning? Is not art appreciation, on its highest level, standing in a now-unlocked room – one opened by you – and through not just looking but seeing, not just inventorying but empathizing, not just looking for the weapon but also both superficial and deep-rooted motives, finding the answer? The resonance of this placeness is both in the locking and the unlocking of a room we need to be in.

1 Comment

Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Life, Musings, Random, Words Words Words