Have you ever broken a law?

I used to teach a class in ethics as part of a training program for my company. My co-instructor liked to start off with this question. Have you ever broken the law? Most people would shake their heads.

Didn’t borrow any of the down payment for your first house from you parents? Never tried recreational drugs? Underage drinking? Never saw any of it occur and failed to report it?

By this point much of the class was shrugging or looking sheepish.

guidelinesNever ran a stop sign? Crossed the street on a red light? Exaggerated the value of your clothing donations on your income return?  Never double parked or jaywalked or even drove a single mile over the speed limit? Ever?

She had their attention then, and we generally went on to have a pretty lively discussion about what it means to be a law-abiding citizen. I liked to talk about Jack Sparrow’s famous quote that his pirate code was really more of a “guideline.” The fact is, we all consider some laws to be guidelines, particularly when we believe that consequences of our breaking them will not hurt anyone. The perception of which laws this applies to changes over time

In this class we talked about bank robbery versus littering. When I was young my parents would never have considered robbing a bank, although they did habitually take towels from hotels, assuring me that it was included in the price of a room. I later learned otherwise. My parents certainly considered laws against throwing trash out of the car to be a suggestion, along with any requirement to wear a seat belt. Like I said, times change.

Laws change, too, as do penalties and enforcement. When society begins to deem that “this law is serious” the hope is that the increased scrutiny and greater fines are made public first, not used as gotcha fundraising, and that the changes are uniformly enforced among all income levels and ethnic groups. (I know. That’s the hope.)

insider-tradingMuch of the purpose of our particular class was to end up in a discussion about business ethics. My company worked with many different countries, all of which had laws against bribery, but many of which had cultures that considered those laws as guidelines. We also talked about insider trading, and how its acceptability has changed over time. I like the example from the 1980’s movie The Big Chill, when Kevin Kline tries to help his close friend William Hurt by tipping him off that a company is about to be acquired and its stock will shoot up. A friendly gesture? Or ten years in jail? You be the judge.

nutshell I’m remembering those lively discussions and wondering how my former co-workers back in the Houston area are feeling about illegal immigrants. It’s an emotional topic, today more than ever. Because z2 is partly about immigration, I did a fair amount of research on the subject as I wrote. My main source was a wonderful book called “Immigration Law and Procedure in a Nutshell” by David Weissbrodt and Laura Danielson, which used humor and antidotes to help illustrate the changes in both law and perception over the decades.

My one grandfather was brought here at two years old and never knew the country of his birth. I’m pretty sure that all eight great-grandparents of mine arrived from Russia with no paperwork; some of them didn’t even know what country they were going to. Half of one family ended up here, half in Argentina. Oh well, at least they weren’t in Russia, where authorities were cracking down on them for having immigrated from Germany a century earlier.

taboojive2You see, at one time the world was a place where people fled danger, hoping and expecting that those elsewhere would allow them to start a new life if they just worked hard and didn’t make trouble. Paperwork was a guideline. As long as they didn’t hurt anyone, it was really okay.

We live in a different sort of world now, but not everybody has caught up. We have people who were brought here as children by well meaning parents who didn’t think they were doing something that awful. We have those who came here even recently believing that the worst a generous and kind country like ours would do to them would still be far better than what they were facing from tyrants where they were.

We have every right to make our borders completely non-porous today if we so choose. Cost versus benefit, compassion versus safety; these are debates worth having. But when it comes to how we treat those already here, it would serve us well to remember.

choicesThe text we used for our ethics class was a wonderful  book called How Good People Make Tough Choices by Rushworth Kidder. It talked about the main ethical dilemmas facing moral people. Loyalty versus truth. Short term thinking versus long term thinking. Individual rights versus social responsibility. And my personal favorite, mercy versus justice. Our most passionate discussions were about this last one, as we tried to get our participants to understand how often we as humans want mercy for ourselves, our loved ones, and those like us, and how stridently we demand justice for everyone else.

I’ve been thinking about that class a lot these past three weeks, and wondering if I could try just teaching it to passing strangers on street corners. Would anyone stop to listen?

And the Hate Goes On …

enhanced-buzz-wide-28244-1347483313-2It’s hard to be quiet after you turn on the news and listen to some of the surreal reactions to the terrorist attacks in Paris and Lebanon. For starters, members of the very same political party that once used the word treason to describe any one who disagreed with George Bush’s invasion of Iraq,  on the grounds that they were criticizing U.S. foreign policy at a crucial time, have now doubled down on criticizing the current president to the point of making his job unduly difficult. And they are doing this primarily to advance their own political careers. Hypocrisy only begins to describe the situation.

But what they are saying is even more disturbing.

Governors of some 30 states have now said they will not accept new refugees. Tennessee House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada believes the time has come for the National Guard to round up any Syrian refugees who have recently settled in his state and to stop any additional ones from entering. His words: We need to activate the Tennessee National Guard and stop them from coming in to the state by whatever means we can.”

Roanoke Mayor David Bowers cited the use of internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II to justify suspending the relocation of Syrian refugees to his city in Virginia and requested that all Roanoke Valley agencies stop Syrian refugee assistance. His words: I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.

Let’s take a breath and look at the facts.

growing bolder 5Syrian and Iraqi refugees are already the most heavily vetted category of people to enter the U.S. Their screening already includes background checks by the FBI and DHS, and seven other federal agencies. Furthermore, the U.S. has taken in only about 2,200 Syrian refugees out of the more than 4 million fleeing the war-torn nation. In the Middle East, America’s ally Turkey has done three orders of magnitude better, taking in more than 2 million of its neighbors. Tiny Lebanon is trying to absorb more than 1 million Syrians, and Jordan has more than 650,000. And by the way, only 30 of those Syrian refugees settled in the nervous state of Tennessee.

President Obama has called for us to take in at least 10,000 more refugees over the next fiscal year, compared to Germany’s 800,000, and brave France’s commitment to accept another 30,000 even after the attacks. An embarrassingly wide array of our politicians are throwing public tantrums about allowing even this small amount of highly vetted and desperate people to come into our allegedly welcoming and compassionate country.

Do the American’s saying these things listen to themselves? Do they not realize that they sound like the villains in a barely believable movie?

My novel z2 contains a lot of information about the history of immigration law in the United States but no one story moved me as much as this:

In 1939, the United States denied entry to twenty-thousand Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany, even though families had already been found here to care for each and every child. The reason for denying these children asylum? Admitting them would have forced us to exceed our set total quota for immigrants for that year, and the rationale in Congress, where the granting of the exception was refused, was that we couldn’t just go around bending the rules every time it was convenient.

walk talk 1Let’s stop this nonsense now. History does not have to repeat itself.

Apparently political philosopher Edmund Burke never actually said the words “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” although he expressed the sentiment in lengthier quotes. If you prefer a pithy summary of a call to action, listen to Plato. His words: The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men. Or Albert Einstein. His words: The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.

You and I need to speak up. Use social media like #stophatespeech and let your voice be heard. We are capable of being the good guys. Let’s start to act like it.

(For more on this subject see “I Live Here” on my “Face Painting for World Peace” blog.)