Law in Contemporary Society

The Many

-- By LeylaHadi - 08 Apr 2013

Denial of the Many

During my third year at Cornell, a string of sensationalized suicides occurred on campus; notably, the kids jumped off bridges. The last suicide that took place before the administration decided it needed to erect fences across the bridges was of an acquaintance of mine. In hindsight, there were many signs, despite his very tight group of friends, his stellar grades, the noteworthy job he landed, his very loving girlfriend. One night a few of us were drinking together, and he burnt each of his knuckles with a cigarette. Since Matt, no students committed suicide on the bridges; and three years later, the fences are removed, replaced with heat-detecting nets under the bridges. The student body has successfully finished its time in prison, and is now only on probation.

Matt's actions brought about the first time I critically contemplated the multiplicity of our person. This young man who appeared to have everything going for him literally threw it all away. The people close to him knew about his struggle with depression and his previous attempted suicide. But he was so scared of what would happen if he sought help, that he'd be locked up, or anesthetized. He felt there was no safety net, and so he didn't look for safety, even though I'm sure conflicting forces within him yearned for help. His friends didn't think he would ever reach that point, and couldn't look through the facade of unity to see that there were parts of him that could reach that point, which tragically took over that afternoon. If only the idea of oneness wasn't viewed as a given, and instead understood as the position we reach through deep study and acknowledgement of the many.

The criminal justice system puts people inside cages, rather than spending more energy and money on preventing the need for the cages, fences, in the first place. As with suicide, there is a fearful perplexity which surrounds some of the worst human crimes. We want to understand, we want to know what causes people to act in ways most cannot imagine. We need to figure out what causes the seemingly normal Dzhokhar Tsarnaevs of the world to commit nightmarish, unforeseeable acts, presumably so we can pick up on the signs, the behavior, and prevent the worst. When we can't understand the behavior, or logically connect the dots, we are left frightened and disconcerted. Instead of picking apart the plurality of the person, analyzing the many parts to understand why one part won over the rest to control the body's actions, we see the person as one unified actor. Because we cannot understand, we are compelled to simplify them with a label (terrorist, sociopath, troubled), and then banish them.

The Bigger Picture

What comes of my awareness of this heterogeneity? I can use the understanding for my own betterment, to improve myself, my relationships, and my abilities as a lawyer. But even though I fully believe in the many, which furnishes my distrust and distaste of punishment and strengthens my desire for rehabilitation, sometimes I don't know if the cognizant awareness of the many matters. Watching a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer recently left me with a sick feeling of confusion. This human's story of seduction, brutal murder, and consumption of his prey, followed by his time in prison repenting and turning to spirituality, made me question how much rehabilitation can really accomplish. The monster inside raged for years, without anyone even remotely suspecting. The damage was done. Why should we care if he is rehabilitated; how can we ever take the risk of setting him free? Of course, Dahmer is an anomaly and an extreme case. Still, killers, rapists (labels, labels), are too risky. The cost of failed rehabilitation is far too great, even though I don't believe in retribution.

The awareness of the many does not create an excuse for violent behavior. Understanding that there are various causes, genetic and otherwise, that allow the abusive part of a person to vigorously control the many, some of which may despise his outward actions, is a step towards two societal advancements. One, we stop adhering to the concept of punishment, of retribution. This naturally extends to less severe criminal acts too. Two, we prevent individuals from acting on their violent urges; the urges will exist. Take the Dahmers and Bundys, even the Tsarnaevs, and instead of focusing solely on the why, examine the which. Understand that a particular lifestyle, a general disposition, a certain set of relationships or lack thereof don't illuminate the entire picture, viewed in a vacuum. Study these individuals so that we have a better idea of the what makes particular parts of the many emerge, and use the information as a radar for other potentially dangerous individuals.


I have little knowledge regarding why, through centuries, we have focused on the idea of the individual as one unified actor. Because the idea is so fundamentally ingrained in most modern societies, I don't know if the concept will ever shift into one that acknowledges the many. I do know that the shock that comes after a person commits a particular unbelievable act, whether suicide, terrorism, cannibalism, is indicative of our disbelief in the many. The subsequent need to categorize the individual only cements the disbelief. Instead, the individual should be deconstructed and examined to show that we are not one.

While I am doubtful that the idea of the many will penetrate our legal system, I do know that it has aided my analysis of two critically important themes this semester. One, the subject of my first paper, how I see myself in the legal world. Two, the purpose of the law as it functions today, and what the purpose should be.

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r11 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:23:38 - IanSullivan
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