Part I: Which Side of the Law is Your Law?
This blog is aimed at re-considering our perspective on criminals.
A criminal is someone who commits a crime. A crime is something that is defined as an action or omission, which is an offence and is punishable by law. The law is the system of rules which a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members, which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties.
So far, so good.
Let’s take this from the top.
A crime is something that is against the law. A law may be a representation of the times, and in that, a law in one country may itself be illegal a few years later. One law that is prevalent in one country may be considered non-permissible in another.
Case in Point 1: the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States: Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in February 1793, signed into law by the first US president, George Washington. The Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article 4, Section 2) guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. This law established the legal mechanism by which escaped slaves could be seized in any state, brought before a magistrate and returned to their masters, giving states the right to demand a slave be returned. This law made it a crime to assist a fugitive or a slave in escaping, with prison and a fine. The Act made every escaped slave a fugitive for life (unless manumited by the owner), who could be recaptured at any time anywhere within the territory of the United States, along with any children subsequently born of enslaved mothers.
Today, any form of slavery is illegal in the United States.
Case in Point 2: In the United Kingdom, Henry VIII made witchcraft a felony in 1541; this was later repealed but reintroduced by Elizabeth I in 1563. The first Englishwoman was hanged for the ‘crime’ in 1566. The 120-year witch-killing craze had begun, which was to see over 5,000 British women accused. The last trial in England was in 1712, but persecution continued until the end of the 18th century.
Never mind history, consider these laws prevalent today:
- Since 1990 Saudi Arabia has a Fatwa prohibiting women driving automobiles as “a source of undeniable vices”.
- A 2013 Indian act confirmed the legality of marital rape… “Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.”
- In Malta, if a kidnapper “after abducting a person, shall marry such person, he shall not be liable to prosecution.”
- In Saudi Arabia, there is no minimum age for marriage. In 2008, a Saudi court refused an 8-year-old girl, who asked for a divorce from her 58-year-old husband.
These are the nefarious laws. And then there are the stupid laws:
- In Colorado it is illegal to collect rainwater. Apparently farmers and landowners are being punished for this.
- In Singapore, selling non-medical chewing gum or chewing normal gum is a fine of $1000.
- In the Philippines you can be charged with the crime of “unjust vexation” for doing just that, vexing someone. (You annoyed me, you go to jail. Come to think of this, I might vote for this law.)
- In Florida, it’s illegal to fart in a public place after 6pm on a Thursday. (I would suppose the prevalence of farting in public places at 5:59 pm on a Thursday would be particularly high.)
- In Switzerland, it is illegal to flush a toilet after 10pm. (You should be in bed, don’t you know?)
- In England it is illegal to die in the House Of Parliament. (How dare you?)
- In Britain, it is illegal to be drunk in the pub. (What next? Its illegal to be full in a restaurant? Or studious in a library?)
- In Florida it is illegal for a divorced or a widowed woman to skydive on a Sunday afternoon. (Okay, so I’m stumped as to the rationale behind this).
- Married New Yorkers cannot get divorced on grounds of irreconcilable differences unless both marriage partners agree on those grounds. (Great. The ONLY time they agreed!)
- In France, it is stated as illegal to marry a dead person. (But I LOVE my groom! I love the silent type!)
- Divorce is illegal in the Vatican. (YOU married him, you’re stuck with him. So help you God.)
- In Dubai, extramarital sex is against the law. That means that in rape cases, both the victim and the perpetrator could end up being charged with the same crime.
Here’s the point: the law can be ethically wrong. It is not infallible. As a construct of human systems, including those of prejudice, fear, and oppression, human laws can be unjust, or just plain stupid.
In the next blog post, we will look at some of the people who have broken laws consistently for years despite being repeatedly warned to desist. These men and women ended up in jail, and by definition, are the greatest criminals in history.
You know, like Mohandas Karmanchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi. You know the type.