Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Devil is in the Details

Dante spends a good part of the Divine Comedy cataloguing the acts of sinners. He considered some sins worse than others—a sentiment that isn’t always reflected in the inconsistency with which society metes out its retributions. For instance, there are still states where sodomy is a crime, while there are other communities, like Key West, Florida, where refusing to be sodomized, in either the gay or straight communities, results in a totally different kind of punishment—banishment. The Hester Prynnes of Key West wear their scarlet letters for failing to perform fellatio.

Bigamy is openly flouted in Utah, even though it is a federal crime. In some states, failing to pay income taxes is considered evasion, while in New York City, sheltering income is regarded as a sign of sophistication. The oppression of women is plainly looked on as a sin in most areas of the Western world, while in the Middle East women who rebel against prescribed roles can be stoned or flogged. In recent cases, women have been sentenced to lashings for drinking beer or wearing pants, and in some countries women are routinely punished for being raped.

Eliot Spitzer resigned to avoid impeachment for hiring the services of the Emperor’s VIP Escort Service. Bill Clinton was impeached for his sexcapades, even though he didn’t go all the way, while the dalliances of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King round out their revered mythologies. Other greats in the pantheon of adulterous lust include Tolstoy, Pushkin, Victor Hugo, George Simenon, Picasso, and Matisse, to name just a few. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gets a slap on the wrist for attending nude soirees with women who are not much older than his 18 year-old daughter, whose birthday he doesn’t have time to attend. Applying a more philosophical approach, Gandhi tested his ability to eschew worldly desire by sleeping next to naked virgins.

There are those who literally get away with murder, like the drug dealer Nicky Barnes. And then there are those who get life terms for possessing relatively small quantities of drugs, under New York’s archaic Rockefeller laws. In California, three convictions can get you a life term, regardless of the crime. And the old adage about having sex with a minor, “fifteen’ll get you life,” is probably exaggerated—in most states, fifteen is more likely to get you fifteen.

The current period of scarcity that has followed in the wake of reckless abundance has left a legacy of fraud in its wake. An entire cabal of elected officials in the city of Hoboken was recently rounded up in a major kickback scandal. Americans ponied up billions in tax dollars so failing banks could pay outsized bonuses to executives.

Jonathan Pollard got life without parole for giving secrets to an ally, while a second trial acquitted Claus von Bülow of the murder of his wife Sunny, who died last December after 28 years in a coma. Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi, became the head of the UN, while Comrade Duch, the notorious head of Tuol Sleng prison, claimed he was just doing his job. The suicide bomber takes comfort in his saintly status, while the CIA operative waterboards detainees to save American lives. Victims confoundingly identify with their torturers in what is known as the Stockholm syndrome. When it comes to justice, only one thing is certain: the guilty, as in Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, are their own worst judges.

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