Letter of the Law

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   July 5, 2022

Nowadays, it’s hard to avoid being a criminal, because, whatever you try, there’s bound to be a law against it – perhaps several laws, some of which may be in conflict with the others – that’s how lawyers make their money. Many such legal eagles are in fact known as “criminal lawyers.” Their avowed purpose is not to establish the truth – but to defend their clients and utilize whatever laws may be useful in doing so.

As for criminals themselves, it used to be said that “crime does not pay,” but, the more clever and resourceful the criminal, the less truth there may be in that adage. We have all heard of crimes, usually involving the theft of large amounts of money or other valuables, which have been “successful,” in that the perpetrators have never yet been caught. And the advent of the computer era has opened up vast new fields of digital misdeeds, especially in international finance and banking.

But, despite new methods and techniques, the breaking of laws goes back at least as far as the Ten Commandments, and actually much farther. The oldest known law code, which was discovered and translated as recently as 1952, dates from Sumeria about 2100 BC, and is known as the Code of Ur-Nammu. This was a society which had slavery, but also apparently had marriage. The offenses listed are not totally unfamiliar to our own era. But the punishments are more clear-cut. It seems there was no imprisonment. And there was no “eye for an eye.” For the more serious crimes, such as murder, the penalty was simply death. All other misdeeds, including knocking out someone’s eye or tooth, or causing the loss of a foot, were punishable by monetary fines.

In general, the kind of actions which were considered crimes have changed very little over the millennia, and so have the types of punishments. What has changed, however, are the number and range of other human activities which have required, and produced, their own sets of prescribed conduct. In fact, there is hardly any area in which today we do not have “codes,” directions, and rules of conduct. Practically every game, every organization, even almost every product, is governed by set standards. Many products, such as over-the-counter medications, are literally covered with text (and sometimes diagrams) concerning their contents and usage, often in such small type as to require magnification for the normal eye.

In the field of traffic-control, there are all sorts of “rules of the road.” The trouble is, they vary a great deal from country to country – and, in our country, from one jurisdiction to another, whether State, County, or municipality. The most obvious international example is the question of which side to drive on. By now, you would think that this would have been firmly settled, and of course everybody should keep to the right, as we do here. But you would be surprised how many countries, including quite populous ones like India and Japan, still adhere to the left. In point of fact, it’s hard to think of any traffic rule which you might call universal. The only one I’m aware of is that a red light always means STOP (or at least, it means DANGER). I’m not so sure about the interpretation of green lights, let alone yellow ones.

As for sea traffic and air traffic, they of course have their own laws, rules, and regulations. These are often the result of unexpected events. It was not until the Titanic went down, in 1912, that the number and capacity of lifeboats on a ship came to be strictly regulated. Some decades earlier, numerous losses of ships caused by over-loading led to a different kind of regulation, involving the marking of a “load line” on a ship’s hull, which showed the legally permitted level above the waterline to which a ship might be safely loaded.

In the air, most of us are more familiar with regulations governing what goes on during flight in the passenger section than in the cockpit – for example we know when we are, and are not, allowed to “move about the cabin.”

Summing it all up, society probably could not function without the discipline imposed by written injunctions – although we have probably reached the point, if we haven’t already passed it – when there are far too many of these. As I once wrote, when in an ultra-cynical mood, “I wish they’d pass more laws to protect me from myself.”  


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