Robert Mueller and Alex Kotlowitz are soulmates.

Mueller is the proprietor of Mueller’s Home and Hardware in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Just kidding. You all know who he is. He’s The Dude, the seer who prepared the parchment called the Mueller Report, which he has now finally bestowed to true believers who should have been more skeptical about their faith.

Alex Kotlowitz? He is the author of the recent and powerful book, “An American Summer: Love and Death In Chicago,” about families living with constant violence in the city’s highest-homicide neighborhoods.

The two are soulmates because each teaches the same important lessons about the limits of the legal system. Both show that the legal system is a blunt, constrained instrument.

Taken together, they are powerful reminders that we tend to be way too law-centered in the way we think about serious issues, whether they involve Jared Kushner or the family of an innocent child on Chicago’s south side who died in a crossfire.

Both Mueller and Kotlowitz are trying to get people to understand the limits of the moment and the importance of the long-term. The legal process is just one chapter in a much longer, complex, meandering story. And as Kotlowitz puts it and Mueller would agree, “Time has a way of revealing things.”

Legal language dominated the entire waiting-for-Mueller process. It led to the expectation that Mueller was going to be the definitive master using the magic wand power of law to show exactly what went on about Russia, conspiracies, the whole shebang. Clarity — getting to the bottom of this.

And the biggest expectation of all was that the next steps in the process would be clear and bold.

This undue faith in law’s power created “Hawaiian Wedding Song” moments. The Report was to be:

The moment I’ve waited for.

I can hear my heart singing.

Soon bells will be ringing.

Ain’t no moment, and it’ll be a while, if at all, before your heart sings and the bell rings whether you like Trump or not.

That in essence is the lesson that both Kotlowitz and Mueller teach about law. Let’s look more closely.

Many writers have analyzed the Mueller Report’s contents.

I want to focus on the Report’s implicit teaching moments about law, which go something like this:

First off, it is crucial to understand that our mission was defined, and most importantly, limited by legal rules and procedures. That meant that we focused on whether people we investigate actually violated actual laws. But as you can see in the report, we uncovered many other activities that might be considered unseemly, unethical, sleazy, or even violations of democratic norms.

Those things all go well beyond our purview. Not our job. It’s up to others with different rules and different objectives to decide whether to make use of this additional information. We encourage it. That means you, Congress.

We don’t apologize for the fact that those next stages are ambiguous, unpredictable and political. Time to rid yourself of law-dependency and get on with your lives.

At one level the people Kotlowitz writes about are extraordinarily intertwined with the legal system. They have friends and relatives who have been murdered. They may be killers themselves or witnesses who have to testify, or try mightily to avoid testifying.

So, law casts a huge shadow, but Kotlowitz shows that these obvious legal moments are just what he calls “snapshots.” And a snapshot focuses on a moment in time.

US Capitol building west side washington DC statues. 12 june 2016

The U.S. Capitol Building.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

To understand the impact of violence, you need to go far beyond the focus on law. Instead Kotlowitz offers: “A set of dispatches, sketches of those left standing, of those emerging from the rubble, of those trying to make sense of what they’ve left behind.”

There is little definitive about the stories these dispatches tell. Like the stories you hear and tell yourself, they are intermittent and tangential — a “disjointed slide show that occasionally gets stuck in a single moment.”

That is exactly how Kotlowitz reveals them, telling a portion in one section, then later on coming back to it.

So here is Kotlowitz’s message about the difference between law and life:

“I told friends about this book, they’d roll their eyes. Such grimness. Such despair. Such darkness. I know what they were thinking: Why would I want to go there? Why would you want to go there? Indeed, this is a book about death — but you can’t talk about death without celebrating life. How amid the devastation, many still manage to stay erect in a world that’s slumping around them. How despite the bloodshed, some manage, heroically, not only to push on.”

More dramatic than Mueller, but the same sense that focusing on “the legal” limits understanding and overly simplifies reality.

When I was a University of Hawaii ombudsman, I spent a lot of time listening to distraught, angry people who felt that they were treated unjustly and had not found anyone who could make things better.

They wanted me to help them find the person — a judge, a high-level university official — who could free them from their agony once and for all.

My job was not to argue that they were wrong but rather to give them a reality check. My advice then was typically the advice that Mueller and Kotlowitz give you now.

It’s this: when we feel injustice, it is too easy to think that the legal process will definitively rid the injustice. Law seldom works that way for exactly the reasons Kotlowitz and Mueller show in contexts that could not be more different from one another.

As for the Mueller Report and the future of Trump, the report is simply a snapshot — a single moment in a disjointed slide show called politics.

Will you help us?

There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, investigative journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?

About the Author