After a senseless loss, reaffirming a faith in words and the law

Sunday , April 09, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

My profession is about applying the written word to the human condition. And what is that condition? It is a condition of violence and death. Chemical warfare. Cruise missiles. Subway bombings. And that was just this week.

The world is a big place, but we find the violence and mayhem of the globe encroaching on the peaceful hamlets of Utah. Even the peaceful and compassionate seem to succumb under the onslaught.

However, I believe in words and I believe in the law. Words may seem like an ineffective means to combat the worst parts of human nature, but when it comes to laws, our collective legal words can be powerful.

Legal words are not passive words, but words backed with force and violence. A judge writes something down and money is taken from one person and given to another. A judge writes something down and a person is taken and held against their will. A judge writes something down and someone dies. All completely legal.

So when I suffered a personal loss from violence, it tested me, because I believe applying the law is the best way to combat the chaos of the human condition.

The law of the land is written down, and the words of the law and systems developed around those words are designed in such a way that when they are working well, the words keep us safe. However, as powerful as legal words are, the law is not a magical incantation.

The simplest law was written in stone thousands of years ago, a law expressly forbidding murder. The law exists in numerous permutations today, and in almost every country. It exists in Syria, London, the United States, Utah, and Ogden. The words don’t stop the killing, but stand as a reminder that as a collective whole, we abhor murder. The words are our shared humanity.

The law should aspire to be our shared humanity, but words can be as complex as human nature itself. Sometimes, given our inhumanity or a desire for vengeance or even “justice,” the law forbidding murder is callously ignored, and people die. And with any death, no matter who you are, or where, there is loss.

When the London terror attack took the life of my friend, Kurt Cochran, this belief system was on trial because the word of law did not keep him safe. This may be why Kurt’s loss is so devastating, even to people who didn’t know him — the words failed to save him and he died, along with others. The law's failure to save them leaves us feeling like it failed us all. The failure challenges our feelings of safety and peace.

What Khalid Masood did on the Westminster Bridge was illegal. The law itself didn't fail;: the law is in place — “Thou shalt not kill.” Masood broke the law, despite the words and their underlying authority. The failure was not in the law. The failure was instilling this fundamental legal concept of humanity into a particular individual.

The law is often maligned because it cannot stop tragedies. We want to add to our laws every time a tragedy occurs because it feels like the law has failed, so new crimes, new laws, and harsher penalties feel like a solution. Yet all we need do is look around and see how some laws are ineffective or vindictive — at their worst, encouraging more violence and tragedy. When we see it from that perspective, we see the law’s true impact.

Designing the law should ultimately be about creating peace, not forcing peace. Violence will beget violence. However, "turning the other cheek" is not a solution either and is not in line with what I believe about the legal system and its function.

The law, in its most effective form, should be the highest form of our collective humanity — and humanity, in its highest form, reflects our compassion, empathy and care for one another as human beings.

Life is dangerous and tragic, no matter who you are or where you live. But the law allows us to follow the admonition in Matthew 10:16 to be as "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Serpents are the dangerous and violent natures we all have within, and when channelled properly, that inner serpent can keep us, and others, safe.

The dove, on the other hand, embodies our compassion and empathy. Together, the serpent and the dove create a balanced, powerful approach to a world that seems increasingly violent.

The response to the violence of the world is in our legal words and legal systems. We acknowledge the violence. We acknowledge the power we must give the law, but we cannot forget the law uses the same violence we rabidly legislate against. The difference is we must use the violence with wisdom and temper it with compassion within the framework our laws provide.

We must face the violence of crime and terror with the wisdom and exactitude of serpents, while tempering our reactions and laws with the compassion and empathy of a dove.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward

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