I’m thinking of suing a few people.
First my orthodontist or perhaps, by now, his heirs. That gap between my forward-leaning two front teeth that he removed with great pain and suffering to my 12-year-old self, as well as embarrassment due to rubber bands that popped out in the middle of meals-that very same gap seems to be reappearing. He promised me a lifetime of beauty. He may, in fact, have weakened my gums with his nasty steel bands, sentencing me to an eternity of Water-Piks. What do you think I’ll get?
I could sue my obstetrician for breach of promise. “What a lovely child,” he said, “perfect in every way.” He should have waited to make that pronouncement. It caused confusion in my mind. Made it hard for me to discipline her. If she was already perfect, why bother? He should have prepared me for the fact that motherhood is the encounter with the imperfect both within and without. My mental pain and suffering must be worth millions. I deserve compensation, don’t you think?
I could sue my fifth-grade English teacher. She was supposed to teach me punctuation and I still don’t get it. I should have been referred to a specialist. I should have been given extra tutoring. It was criminal to expect that I’d just get over misplacing my commas, as if I just had the sniffles instead of a serious learning disorder that would create tension between me and my editors which, in turn, possibly caused a loss of income running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ll sue. It’s time someone held those progressive-school types responsible for the damage they caused vulnerable children in their charge.
This cranky use of the legal system to return power to the sufferer, the wounded, the unfortunate victim is one of the most peculiar aspects of our very peculiar, and becoming ever more peculiar, world. The goal is money, although catching a victim or one of his relatives actually admitting that is as likely as gathering moonbeams in your online bank account. I know the plaintiff just wants to hold someone responsible for the random act of violence, the car that has no brakes at a school crossing at 3 p.m., the hospital that should have known that the calm, well-medicated patient they released on the street would leave his medicine in the men’s room at the Port Authority and stab a lady whose red hat reminded him of one his sister had owned some 50 years before. But we all know the real goal is money, a chance to cash in, whether it’s a simple tragedy that happened first, an actual racist event or one fanned into existence by the dragon breath of an Al Sharpton, or something more ambiguous, a boyfriend gone loony, a dog gone rabid, a streetcar named misplaced desire that jumped the tracks.
It’s not about money, most of the plaintiffs or their lawyers will say, it’s about the healing process. Baloney. You don’t get over your grief because you’ve gotten some money out of the state or the insurance companies. You don’t compensate for a lost child by getting an investment portfolio.
There is something particularly odd about the parents in Littleton rushing to their lawyers in the wake of this most horrible of events, this sad sad story of two very troubled boys and the innocent children slain before they had a chance, before they could love and procreate, make their marks, their lives. Their loss is terrible, but do they need lawyers? Will the law find a way to redress the injustice of fate, the cruelty of accidental placement? Can the law make clear a chain of blame and, having done so, heap money on the heads of survivors? Isn’t this a spectacle that ultimately undermines our civil society and our laws and mocks our attempts to live justly with one another?
In mid-April, nine civil lawsuits were filed against the Littleton sheriff’s department by the families of 15 of the Columbine victims. One claims that a deputy killed a boy, another claims that the department’s inability to end the siege promptly caused a man to bleed to death. Michael Shoels is not only suing the sheriff’s department but also the parents of the two gunmen. More suits are expected against other people, as well as the school district itself. What they hope to win is money.
But tragedy is caused by the interactions of fate and human misdeed. You can hold a person responsible for his or her own actions, but what can you do about the fate that cuts the thread of a young life by placing it in the library at just the wrong hour in the seat by the window on the left side of the room? What can you do about the kinds of calamities that might have been averted at several points along the chain of events? If one mother had opened the closet door and seen the arsenal, if several friends had reported the weird goings-on, if the sheriff’s department hadn’t filed away what seemed like a routine complaint, if an angry child had been seen by a brilliant child psychiatrist instead of merely a competent one, then events might have been altered and no one would receive a large check at the end of a long lawsuit. In other lawsuits caused by other tragedies we see that coincidence, human error of the understandable kind, overwork, exhaustion, tension between workers, etc., contributed to the event, but responsibility is hard to pin down. Responsibility measured in dollars and cents is evasive, hard to assign.
The law is or should be based on facts. It’s not about poetry or religion or psychological relief. It is effective when the state is grossly negligent, the sidewalk is not paved, the engineer on the train was drunk, but for the most part the law is not meant to be a “healing agent.” It is not meant to make us feel better about the precarious, difficult nature of life lived with other people, on subway platforms, on airplane rides, in hospital corridors.
What the loss of life at Columbine illustrates is the need for better gun control-better that than a bag of punitive damages that will succeed only in sending out the word that money is commensurate with human life, and there is no tragedy that can’t be turned into a comedy if the lawyers have their day in court. What we don’t need is more lawyers making a buck and more people trying to translate pain into greenbacks. This is happening because we are like primitive folks practicing voodoo in a time of plague. We cannot tolerate the fragile nature of our existence, the nakedness of our souls against an indifferent and implacable universe. Sue the cosmos for its bad behavior. You might get really rich.