Gayla Bogan, a 47-year-old nurse in tiny Clarksville, Texas, was at home recovering from a three-day respiratory infection when she suddenly had a terrible time breathing.
Her son Bristian rushed over, saw that she was gasping for air, and immediately called first responders. It took only 5 minutes to get there, but by then she was non-responsive.
They rushed her to the hospital. The trouble was that the hospital was 30 minutes away, too far to treat what turned out to be cardiac arrest and a fatal heart attack.
Tragic timing. Only two weeks earlier the paramedics would have taken her to the local hospital just a few minutes away.
But by the time she had her seizure that hospital, like many rural hospitals in Texas, had shut down for good.
The Texas Observer began its story about hospital closings in rural Texas with that account. What followed were some statistics and some general policy discussions.
But the gut-grabber — the humanizer — was Gayla Bogan’s personal story.
It’s an emotional story of a person in pain that makes the article so resonant and so real. Her plight stays with you.
The story of the Thirty Meter Telescope is also about people in pain, but you wouldn’t think so if you listen to what TMT proponents say about using the law to resolve the issue once and for all.
And that makes their basic argument unrealistic and fundamentally flawed.
For instance: About the same time that story came out, Civil Beat published an editorial critical of Hawaii’s recent political protests. It is a common example of what the TMT’s proponents see as the next steps.
Enough, it says, is enough:
But at some point a decision has to be made and held … That is what our laws, rules and regulations are for, and that is why we have a representative government … Flagrant lawlessness to subvert that process is unacceptable. When it happens, law enforcement must intervene …
Even if you favor TMT, maybe especially if you do, you should be concerned with this view — call this the once-and-for-all legal process approach.
Nothing in that editorial is about the emotional power of a person in pain because there are no individual people in that story.
Like medicine, pain is woven into law. One of law’s essentials is its ability to induce pain — the right to use violence to stop people from doing what they are doing, as in stopping a criminal or removing a trespasser from your property. Only law can legitimately do this.
Law does a bunch of other kinder and gentler things, but only official law enforcers can legitimately cause people pain or even kill them. This can be messy, chaotic, and even brutal. But it’s what we want law to do every day.
Unlike the rural Texas story, the once-and-for-all editorial is not about this pain at all. It’s about process, the legal process.
It simply ignores the possibility that there might be a lot of pain and violence if law moves onto the mountain.
This rose-colored vision of law wholeheartedly accepts what in his book, “Law’s Violence,” Austin Sarat calls law’s official story, which lies so deep in our bones that we take it for granted.
This official story stresses the justness of the Rule of Law and law’s power to vindicate. The once-and-for-all approach to TMT makes the legal process seem so automatic and bureaucratic: let’s just get off our asses and put the rules and regs into effect.
This view stresses law’s magnificence and ignores its gruesomeness.
Law’s unofficial story, however, is more frightening and chaotic. It’s simply this: law exists in a field of pain and death.
Whatever happens with TMT, there is going to be much pain and suffering on all sides.
Law is not a brave knight in shining armor. It’s an unsure knight in clunky armor stumbling into battle with a lethal but clumsy sword.
If you are going to talk about the law’s ability to get us out of the TMT jam, you can’t just consider the official story without also considering its unofficial but real, pain-laden one.
So to sum up, what’s the problem with the once-and-for-all view?
It takes people’s pain and suffering out of the equation. Yet if law enforcement steps in, some people, both the protesters and the law enforcers, might get hurt and even die.
This is a worse-case scenario, but it sure is a plausible one. Protests are chaotic. Historically, they can and often have turned violent. Did any of you imagine that Hong Kong would turn out the way it has?
If you are OK with risking these possibilities in the name of the law, fine, but it’s too easy an out to wish these violent outcomes away.
We all get through life by not thinking about certain things like the working conditions of places making our clothes or manufacturing our phones.
Our lives would be impossible if we had to resolve all such contradictions. Distance and depersonalization keep us emotionally afloat.
But there are limits.
Those who believe in the once-and-for-all approach need to test themselves. They need to imagine the difference it might make if they put flesh-and-blood individual pain and suffering rather than doctrine more at the center of their vision.
And they need to recognize both law’s brutality and its limits.
Considering that doesn’t change your mind? You still think that despite this it’s time for law enforcement to intervene? Fine. That’s far better and more responsible than simply wishing it away in illusory beliefs about law.
Whatever happens with TMT, there is going to be much pain and suffering on all sides, and it’s going to continue well into the future radiating out in unpredictable directions.
What we see from the pro-telescope side are paralysis, anger and bromides.
As things stand now, the once-and-for-all view with its simple, rubbed out view of the world is just another one of the bromides.
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