The following Prosecutor Series encapsulates what I learned during my 15 years as a deputy prosecutor. They are intended to shed some informal light on a very dark area: crime. Hope you enjoy them.
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I was born before 1960, when the world was Black-and-White. Repressed men and women mumbled innuendos through cigarette-clenched lips. Dangerous, existential conflicts circled restless dreams like a hungry lion — kept in check by house payments, kids, and alcohol. You know what I mean. If you are 50-years-old or older, you were likely conceived in a cloud of Chesterfield smoke and learned to accept lipstick on your restaurant glass as a part of the Surgeon General’s recommended diet for future depressives. Yeah.
That’s Noir, man.
The A&E execs pay people to answer the question: “What is film Noir?” Are you kidding me? Noir is not a film, man. It’s the world America’s World War II combat vets revealed through films like Black Angel and The Asphalt Jungle. The world of Noir started with All Quiet on the Western Front and ended with Cape Fear. That’s Noir, Jack. About 30 years. If you throw in Twilight Zone’s five seasons, 35 years. Noir is the world that shaped my soul.
My sisters and I grew up in a house where the specters of the dead did not let us forget the shadowy side of life. My mother’s first husband was killed at Normandy; her second husband — my father — landed at Normandy and survived the Battle of the Bulge through VE Day. We didn’t watch war movies with either of our folks around. The end result of my early years was that I was always more at home in the 1940s than I am in our own time, which seems so .… so much like a pampered kid from a one-child family. They’re only cute to their parents. The rest of us are forced to endure their specialness.
Flash forward to the summer of ’88. Freshly divorced, and restless, I began what would turn out to be a near-career of prosecution in Yakima County. One afternoon I was arguing a summary judgment motion in a civil case against the County. I turned and saw that Jeff Sullivan, the elected prosecutor, was watching me in action. I barely got back to my office when the phone rang. It was Sullivan. On a sweaty August day in 1988, I hung up my spurs as an insurance defense attorney and became a deputy prosecutor. I would spend my next 12 years in that office.
Yakima was a shooting gallery. It seemed there was a drive-by shooting almost every week. A friend of mine in the defense business went with his client’s family to the Pizza Hut for lunch break during his client’s trial for .… a drive-by. A car backfired. Every single person at that table instinctively ducked for cover. That’s how it was. Without even realizing it, I learned to check belt lines when I was on the street, in stores. Yakima was my sweaty introduction to America’s post-Noir world, a place where there was neither romance, nor honor. Smarmy greed and cruel force were the dominant currents in America’s deteriorating social scene.
Man perfected by society is the best of all animals; he is the most terrible of all when he lives without law, and without justice. Aristotle
The only entity that can mediate between the individual and the tribe is, for better or worse, a state, and it is the prosecutor’s peculiar responsibility to enforce the will of the state against an individual. Because justice is rooted in proportionality, and proportionality cannot take shape without something with which to measure its application, i.e., force, it necessarily involves the use of power against others. Hence there is always an element of war in politics. You cannot impose an income tax without making “polite” war on the citizenry. There is no nice way to part someone from what they’ve cultivated through effort and intelligence. You have to take it from them, and if they resist, you have to imprison or kill them. People want to hear these things expressed in terms of ideals, but up close, it doesn’t work that way.
Still, if it weren’t for the state, we would soon find ourselves in a Hobbesian nightmare of endless strife.
It is in justice that the ordering of society is centered. Aristotle
The entire universe is a power system. In any dynamic, whether mechanical or psychic, there is an exchange of energy. In intimate relationships there is sexual power, emotional power, financial power, even psychological power — unless the two persons are exceptionally evolved. Even kindness can be used to manipulate the other. Sometimes one party is an extremely secure person, the other is not, and so on. Always there is conflict in human relationships. The best relationships are the ones where each party pulls his or her own weight and respects the other person without resort to guilt, or fear. It is by this mechanism that our personalities and our character evolve.
Almost all the world’s problems can be traced to the improper exercise of power. The purpose of forensics in the law is to shape the personality so that it gives expression to the principle of proportion, which could be defined as the “circumscribed application of force.” True maturity in the law and in politics consists of getting the personality out of the way.
There is no human being who cannot fall prey to greed or evil. It takes a tremendous amount of work to free yourself from distorted attachments to the power dynamic. Most of us practice power rituals we believe are unique and useful but which are, in fact, primitive force plastered over with a Smiley Face. In the final run, Death is the Joker that forces us all to let go of all our delusions.
The law is reason, free from passion. Aristotle
Over time, the force of personality is concentrated by responsibility, whereas evasion of responsibility weakens its force, which is why I’ve told the prosecutors I’ve trained that you cannot achieve justice with political ideology or personal preference because when you do that, you are imposing your personality upon other people which is — to use the old-fashioned term — tyranny. To apply force justly upon others, your will must be guided by principle. It takes an uncommonly evolved personality to understand how quickly principle can be distorted by greed, pettiness and cruelty, whether open, or concealed.
Therein lies the primary issue of power: whether its application is conscious or unconscious, principled or tyrannical. It is the same for all human beings, in all circumstances. You can only disengage from manipulation if there is a conscious effort to cultivate a sterling character fortified by solid principle — or the pain of adversity forces you to let go.
In my 15 years as a prosecutor, I actually got to know, and exercise, power, albeit at modest levels. In the next installment, we’ll continue with real life stories of prosecution, and how I learned to observe the State in action.
Or, more properly, how I learned to exercise power.
Welcome to my world.
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