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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Paralyzing nobility

A legalistic aversion to risk carries a high price

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

I would have thought nothing of it in the past, this almost terrified look on the farmhand's face when we asked permission to feed Harley the pig our pear core. Honestly, I wasn't even going to bother with the formality but for my granddaughter's suggestion. The young man quickly sought out his superior, who appeared on the scene to vet the request. The answer was "No," and I was prepared to move on, but my 5-year-old companion stood, fruit in hand, looking up at him until he was embarrassed and offered further explanation: "We sometimes give him fruit-but we know where it comes from."

There is a scene in Titanic where a cut crystal light fixture tinkles overhead like a wind chime in a breeze. The fate of the luxury liner is sealed in that detail, though the electric power plant still functions till nearly the end, giving the doomed vessel an outward appearance of normalcy that makes passengers reluctant to leave it for lifeboats dropped into a black icy night.

The truth about a civilization is in its minutia. At the playground a few years ago I observed men dismantling a merry-go-round structure like the one in my schoolyard in the late '50s. I learned upon inquiry that every one in the township was coming down: considered dangerous. It was not hard to detect the smell of litigation behind that development.

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On Jan. 17 of this year a 39-year-old woman died in the ladies' room of Terminal E of the Philadelphia International Airport after waiting 40 minutes for an ambulance. Dispatch records show that units which arrived at the airport returned to their firehouses without approaching the ailing woman because of a department guideline that prohibited them from crossing into an "unsecured" section. Mrs. Jennifer Moore, weakening in the arms of a stranger speaking assurances to her, kept asking, "Where is the ambulance?"

We have reached the place where a person commits a spontaneous act of courage at his own risk. There was no one defining moment, marked on some national calendar, nor watershed incident chronicled in history books, where everything changed. But some of us born in the middle of the last century awoke in the 21st century to find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, where farmhands look nervous about favors asked by 5-year-olds, and emergency medical technicians' consciences are hamstrung by legal technicalities. It is a state of mind pervasive as air, and as invisible.

The nursing profession has something called a "moral distress scale" that addresses "the painful psychological disequilibrium that results from recognizing the ethically appropriate action, yet not taking it, because of such obstacles as lack of time, supervisory reluctance, an inhibiting medical power structure, institutional policy, or legal considerations."

I grew up when dogs roamed the streets without leashes, when Flexible Flyers were not outlawed in certain towns in upper state New York, when one-fifth of tests that bone specialists offered were not defensive medicine, when lawsuits were rare as train wrecks, and a dairy farm hireling felt liberty to make a unilateral decision about a pear core.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his 1978 Harvard University commencement address, "A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. . . . Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?"

He continued, "Western society has chosen for itself the organization best suited for its purposes and one I might call legalistic. The limits of human rights and rightness are determined by a system of laws. . . . Every conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk."

Solzhenitsyn's key point: "Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man's noblest impulses."

And Harley the pig is out a pear core. 


Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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