Wednesday, June 8, 2011

beyond belief

Ask someone about his or her beliefs and there can arise a fierce solemnity that brooks no contradiction. An I'm-right-and-you're-wrong or what-I-believe-is-the-truth attitude can burn white hot. People are sometimes willing to commit murder in support of their beliefs. Beliefs are serious business.

Today, on the front page of the local newspaper, there is a story about a multiple-arson case that left two people dead in 2009. The case is winding its way through the judicial system. It is a case that aroused sorrow and anger in this smallish (25,000+) community. In today's story, the prosecutor indicated he would not oppose a request by defense lawyers that a jury be brought in from outside the county (Hampshire) in which the fires and deaths occurred.

A statement from the prosecutor said:

Although we believe that a fair and impartial jury could be selected in Hampshire County, the district attorney is also obligated to protect the defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either a first-class example of double-talk or a first-class example of common sense.

People who believe things usually stick up for those beliefs -- assert them,  defend them, call out a militia of arguments in support of them. That's what lawyers do in a courtroom. That's what people do in their lives. Don't fuck with my beliefs!

But for anyone who takes the time to take a look, there is a time when beliefs no longer cut it -- when circumstances are such that beliefs must be left behind. This is true not just for the soldier hiding in a foxhole as bombs drop closer and closer, but also for any human being confronted by an issue that really doesn't care much what anyone believes.

In this case, besides covering his legal ass, the prosecutor recognized that publicity surrounding the case might make it difficult if not impossible to find a local jury that hadn't formed an opinion about the case and was therefore less than the "impartial" that the legal system likes to pretend exists. The issue is more important than the beliefs.

Sometimes I think the bumper sticker should be rewritten. Instead of just, "Don't believe everything you think," it might say, "Don't believe everything you think ... or believe either."

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