Sunday, March 28, 2010

The End of the World - Part 1: Crime and Punishment

On post-apocalyptic laws, reasons why we behave, and the necessity for shades of gray.

The struggle to re-establish order and a new set of laws after the collapse of society is one of the main issues examined in Robert Kirkman's zombie-apocalypse comic The Walking Dead. The first couple of volumes deal with the initial response to the end of the world, and the third and fourth books focus on the characters' search for a safe place to hide from the hordes of undead. The group eventually stumbles upon an abandoned prison, inhabited only by four ex-inmates of varying degrees of trustworthiness. After a few run-ins with the inmates, the group's leader, and main character, a former small-town police officer named Rick, is forced to impose a very simple rule on the small "society": you kill, you die.

Anyone taking the life of anyone else is sentenced to death immediately, no questions asked. The motive or circumstances of the murder aren't to be taken into account. Rick realizes that times have changed, and this new world has brought with it a new set of rules - namely, that human life, now scarce, is too valuable to be threatened by violence from other humans. (The innate hypocrisy of the new law doesn't escape the characters.)

This rule has its subtler points though - what if someone threatens another person with death? What if they plan to steal guns or food that are necessary for others to live? Is intent, or indirect harm enough to sentence someone to death? Just as the old testament's "Thou shalt not kill" covers a wide range of actual transgressions, Rick's new commandment proves to be more nuanced than he initially believes. Eventually, Rick is forced to abandon his rule altogether when it is simply too cut and dried, although no other explicit code takes its place. Dealing with crime on a case-by-case basis has varying results for the group, and while a black-and-white law led to chaos, some very profound tragedies also result from a lack of quick and definitive action.

If there is one overarching law that seems to emerge after the apocalypse, it's this: anything that hinders the survival of the human race is wrong. The problem is, how can you effectively enforce this law?

Pop quiz: someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night. You can hear them rummaging around downstairs while you lay in bed. What do you do? A common answer might be: quietly call the police, try to remain silent, and hope that nobody enters your room. Change it up a little though - there's no working phone, no police, and you happen to be armed with a handgun that you're pretty good at firing. Are you willing to take the chance that the burglar will leave without hurting you or your family?

Most of the time, we're able to leave the "dirty work" in our lives to those who volunteer to do it. We have a police force to deal with crime, a legal system to enact punishment, and myriad of other leaders to make sure that dangerous things get taken care of in an orderly, fair, and consistent manner. When society is gone though, the responsibility to uphold the "rules" falls onto everyone's shoulders.

To make the problem worse, it's a lot easier to break the rules when there aren't any official authority figures around to keep you in line. In addition to shifting the responsibility to uphold the law onto the victims, the end of society increases the chance that the law will need to be upheld. So, the question is, what changes: the rules themselves, or the people who enforce them? Things quickly get nebulous, and this lack of clarity leads to conflict.

If the world ended tomorrow, would its laws still hold? Probably in the short term, while some structure still remained, but what about as things continued to fall apart? Completely remove government and law enforcement from the picture and it's not so clear. Crime seems to thrive whenever it sees an opportunity to do so without consequence. Add to the mix the fact that what we define as crime could even be necessary to exist (say, stealing food in order to keep your family from going hungry), and it's likely that the number of traditionally defined "crimes" is only going to increase.

But there are different degrees of crime - taking food from an abandoned store is different from holding up a shop at gunpoint and forcing them to empty the register. Crimes that directly harm another person are among the most harshly punished, and rightfully so. More "impersonal" crimes such as vandalism, possession of illegal substances, etc. aren't punished nearly as severely. Remove society and it seems as if the severity of these two types of crime shifts in opposite directions. Harming another person when the survival of the human race is at stake is even more unforgivable than in times of safety. For the crimes that remain crimes, there's less room for deliberation about their punishment when so much is at stake. On the other hand, society necessitates the punishment of theft, trespassing, and the like, because these crimes work against the smooth functioning of society itself. Take modern society out of the picture, and these crimes may in fact become necessary to reestablish society.

The reversion to an older, clearer, moral code with fewer shades of gray is something that occurs frequently in post-apocalyptic fiction. It seems like survival dictates the necessity for clear and immediate action against crime, but to what extent can you enforce such a brutal code without becoming as ruthless as those who threaten you?

Imposing a moral code that's painted in black and white simply won't work in a world that has infinite shades of gray, but in a more ruthless society we can't simply maintain the rules that govern us today. Just as the unforgiving laws of the old testament evolved slowly into the more generous laws of the new testament, the laws governing a post-apocalyptic world would have to evolve along with the re-evolution of society. Without society to draw clear cut lines between "right" and "wrong", it's not so easy to tell the difference.

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