Taisuke Suzuki LPS 001 – Prof. Carmalt Short Paper #1 - Justice and Gatekeepers In Franz Kafka’s parable, Before the Law, a man travels far from the country to request entrance to the law, only to be stopped by one of its gatekeepers. Kafka writes that “the man thinks the law should always be accessible to everyone…” After waiting a lifetime for access, denied only by the gatekeepers utterance that entrance is not allowed yet, the dying man asks why he has not seen anyone else attempt to enter. The gatekeeper replies to him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you.” These final words in Kafka’s story present a paradox: on one hand, the law is equally accessible to everyone, and yet on the other, the law can lay out different paths for each person. These seemingly incompatible qualities of the law are true in the real world, and are important in understanding the relationship between law and society. Kafka’s parable can then be seen as an allegory. The characters in Before the Law embody different concepts. Who is the gatekeeper and why is he so important? Kafka seems to lead readers to believe that the gatekeeper is the law, or at very least, an agent of the law. He appears to have authority, and clearly has power over the man from the country. Thus, if the gatekeeper is part of the law that the man so desperately seeks, how can the man doubt him? As the story reveals, the man trusts him until his dying breath; he panders to him and even attempts to bribe him, all to no avail. The final action of the gatekeeper closing the gate to the man begs the question, “how can the law be so cruel?” To attempt to answer this, the concept of “law” should be examined. Law is the rules by which people live by, rules that govern us and bind us to society so that ideally, each person may have guidelines by which to live life and avoid arbitrary judgment. These qualities imply fairness, and therefore, law purposes justice. What is perplexing is that while what is law and what isn’t can be regarded as fact, the reasoning behind the rules, justice, is but a concept. There are many ways to look at justice. If seen through the eyes of John Locke, who argues that government is there solely to protect life and property, he might say that no injustice was done to the man in the parable. Justice, what is right and wrong, what ought to be and what ought not, is a philosophical idea. Kafka’s paradox in Before the Law is therefore also the paradox of how something can be both factual and conceptual at the same time. If looked at from this perspective, it must follow that the application of law as well as justice, is subjective. Good and evil is a socially constructed paradigm that changes throughout history, varies between cultures, and looks different in each individual’s mind. The idea of justice also changes depending on circumstances, definitions, and in oftentimes, emotional reactions. Realizing this, it becomes increasingly clear how difficult is it to apply “justice” to everyone in the same form or fashion. The United States were not always united. When the Constitution was written, the states renounced their sovereignty to create a centralized government, where a set of laws could govern the people of all 13 states. However, they maintained some sovereignty by having their own separate state constitutions, in part because they recognized the different circumstances of each region. This is still the case today. In some rural states, teenagers can drive at the age of 14, while most set the age at 16. Different states, and in many cases different counties within states, have different regulations regarding alcohol. The fact that law is allowed to take varying shapes within a higher, overarching “law” can almost be seen as a solution to Kafka’s paradox. The U.S. has a Constitution that is accessible by, and applied to everyone, and yet each state has “sub- laws” rules that govern people in that particular area. This system works relatively elegantly on a “macro level,” where the number of participants in this perspective is limited and controlled. The problem happens when applying it to a scale that comprises not 50 entities, but hundreds of millions. America is often criticized for being an overly litigious society. There are countless cases of individuals suing others for what, on the surface at least, seem to be trivial or stupid reasons. Some juries are willing to give millions of dollars to someone who kills his dog by trying to dry it in the microwave oven and then sues for not providing a label warning him to do otherwise. To say that the outcomes of these cases are influenced by legal precedence would be an understatement. Many lawyers and judges place extreme importance on precedence because it respects the latter part of Kafka’s law paradox: that law means something different for different people, and under different circumstances. To some degree, America has been successful in combining law and justice. Her people might be suing each other all the time, but America has one of the most fair, if not the most fair judicial system in the world. There are many instances where law does not serve justice, however. These are times when the importance of individualized law comes into play. How can you send one person to jail for committing a crime but not another for committing that same crime? The judge may take into account psychological conditions, whether or not there was intent, or, in Judy Norman’s case, the definition of the term “self defense.” These elements often cannot be defined in black and white. There are some psychologists who will argue that we are all depressed to some degree. Intentions can be unclear, and self defense might take different forms. It is precisely because law cannot accommodate all of these considerations that America has practices such as jury nullification. Another reason why law may not provide justice may not have to do with the complexity of theoretical justice, but because the law explicitly denies it. The man from the country in Before the Law is someone who was perhaps judged by the gatekeeper and denied justice. It is never clear to the reader why the gatekeeper never grants him access through the gate, only that the particular gate was assigned to him. Perhaps the gatekeeper didn’t like the man’s begging. Perhaps he saw the man’s attempt at bribery as an infringement of the law and secretly denied him justice on that ground. Perhaps the law of the land required that people from the country could not access the city. Whatever the reason, what happened to the man probably didn’t happen to everybody else attempting to gain access to the law, and was unjust. Who are the gatekeepers in our societies? Do they pick and choose who gets access to justice? In Norman’s case of domestic violence, her gateway to the law and her chances for justice were blocked by the concept of “the private realm.” Go back further in America’s history, “law” denied justice to immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans. The metaphorical gatekeepers of our society might be access to education and therefore understanding of the law, financial ability to hire good lawyers, or simply different backgrounds and biases towards them. Today, the law provides justice to people belonging in these groups as well, but are there cases where people deserve to have justice taken away from them? In the 2010 movie Unthinkable which stars Michael Sheen, Carrie-Ann Moss, and Samuel L. Jackson, Sheen plays the role of Steven Arthur Younger, an American Muslim terrorist who sends a video threatening to detonate three nuclear bombs in different American urban cities. The CIA and FBI work together to capture him, and the movie chronicles his torture and interrogation from the day he is captured until the day that the bombs are set to go off. Throughout the film, Moss’s character, Brody, is the voice of conventional justice. “The subject is being tortured. This is unconstitutional!” she says. Her co-worker replies: “if those bombs go off there will be no constitution!” Breaking all the standards of the Geneva Conventions, the team carrying out the torture becomes increasingly cruel. In order to crack Younger, Samuel L. Jackson’s character says that he would have to do “the unthinkable.” Although by classical definition, the military and members of the team are the “protagonists,” one of the film’s main points is that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys,” that the victims may actually be the victimizers. The law gives everyone the right to due process, but in Younger’s case, is completely denied on the suspicion of terrorism. In the pursuit of utilitarianism, is there a limit to cruelty towards a few people? Can we completely deny humanity, let alone justice towards a few individuals, in order to ensure that justice is available to others? These are only a few questions that this film provokes that show relevance to Kafka’s paradox. Society comprises individuals with an infinite combination of situations, circumstances, interests and perspectives than a single set of laws could ever fully do justice to. However, law is a legitimate attempt to bring all these aforementioned elements gatherer under one standard, the only alternative being anarchy. Kafka’s Before the Law shows that law and justice are separate ideas that should be thought of differently. His paradox, that law is accessible to everyone and yet means different things to different people, is one that puts these ideas firmly in social context.
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