Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Perfect Man for the Job

I got some good responses to my last post, for which I'm grateful. ALV mentioned what I think of as the "that-couldn't-be-coincidence" theory of destiny. That is, we are who we are because of the perfect (and improbable) combination of highly improbable past events that lead us to where and who we are. These events (and their combination) are so improbable that there must be some greater plan at work. (I have a few logical problems with the theory, but I'll let that slide.*) When I'm not in school, I'm a readin' fool, and I just finished another book that talks about destiny, but in the that-couldn't-be-coincidence fashion.

Scott Turow's eighth novel, Limitations, brings us back to George Mason, the criminal defense lawyer/protaganist from Personal Injuries.** By the time of Limitations, Mr. Mason has been elected to the court of appeals for Kindle County, where he has sat for the past nine years (largely because of the fame he acquired from the events in Personal Injuries). The story begins with Mason's panel hearing the oral argument in an appeal from a gang-rape conviction where the prosecution was brought just three months after the statute of limitations had run. (And thus should be barred by the statute of limitations.) After argument, we sit in on the conference where Mason learns that he will draft the opinion. As the story develops, we learn that Mason himself was once involved in a gang-rape-type situation, and he begins to wonder if he is the right man for the job of determining these young men's fate.

For my non-lawyer readers, you're thinking: "Who cares if it was brought three months late? We're talking about gang-rapists! They deserve the chair!" You're right--emotionally. But our society seeks justice from a system of laws--not of emotions. As John Steed said, "Play by the rules, Mrs. Peel, or the game is nothing." Justice is no game, but the truth of the statement rings even truer: without the rules of justice, our legal system is worthless. We could never be sure that the right kids got the chair. Now to get off my legal soapbox . . .

Mason begins to wonder whether he, with his history, has any qualifications to judge the case. Turow tries to suggest that Mason's whole life has been leading up to this point, to this decision, but the philosophizing sags in the end. He leaves the qualifications-plot for another plot (a less interesting but more exciting plot) and, when he returns to this question, it's magically resolved. The question is presented, however, whether Mason's past put him where he was or whether he put himself where he was because of his past. Was he trying to escape his past (one-time gang rapist who left Virginia for midwestern Kindle County)? Or did that past shape him into the defense lawyer and judge he became? For me--am I who I am because I'm trying to compensate for who I used to be? Or did being who I used to be make me who I am? Or is it both?

I'll close with my favorite from the book: "As a defense lawyer, [Mason] refused to condemn his clients. Everyone else in the system--the cops, the prosecutors, the juries and judges--would take care of that; they didn't need his help." As a lawyer, I hope one day to hold to that ideal. The good lawyer fights for the scum of the earth because, like the supposedly good people, they deserve a hero, too.

* Mainly, my problem is that an improbable past only makes the present improbable, not necessary (i.e., "destined"). The fact that a past is improbable makes it more likely that an improbable present is necessary or pre-ordained, but it is not "proven" in the typical logical sense. In other words, it's like saying that breaking your arm must have been destined merely because you broke your arm. That strikes me as tautological (and thus illogical). But who says that logic tells us everything we need to know?

** This is the first time Turow has brought back a main character as a main character. Of interest to long-time Turow readers: Rusty Sabich, the protaganist and accused in Turow's first novel, Presumed Innocent, has now been made chief judge of the court of appeals and makes a cameo appearance as Mason's good friend and handball rival. Personally, I'd have rather seen Sandy Stern, the protaganist of Pleading Guilty, return. But hey--he's the bestselling novelist.


ALV said...

Oh, I definitely agree that it requires a little leap of logic - but I like it that way :)

avacadojer said...

My logic professor taught us that, when you're using logic to help make real-life decisions, you have to consider emotion and other a-rational premises. If you don't, you run the dual risk of being just plain wrong or of being dissatisfied with your choice.

So it involves a leap of logic, but it's a lot more comforting. And that's important.

Craig Pankratz said...

Isn't the "leap of logic" called faith? I truly admire those who can see the Hand of God working in their lives, even in the little things.

Anonymous said...

Mikearoni here,

once again, i cannot stop myself.

I agree with avacado to a cetain extent. I think that people make the leap because it is comforting. But I don't think that makes it true. You believe it because you want to believe it. What Pankratz calls faith. But that doesn't make it true. I think it is in some ways actually more dangerous, because we settle for things that are not the best or justify things by saying things like, "it was destiny," or, "it was God's will." Personally, I think those are copouts. As avacado has pointed out, logically, they just don't work unless you really want them to.

But whatever you like. If it works for you, keep it up. but for me, it just doesn't.