Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Spiking the Fireworks

Each year, first-year law students across the U.S. cover the case of Mrs. Palsgraf.  

A funny thing happened on the way to the train that day in 1928. A passenger was rushing to catch a moving train on the Long Island Rail Road. A railroad employee saw him. To his mind the passenger looked like he was falling. The employee attempted to pull him into the car, while another employee tried to push him in from behind. Their efforts caused the package the passenger was holding to fall on the rails.

So far so good. 

What the guards didn't know: the package, wrapped in newspaper, contained fireworks, so that it exploded when it hit the rails (What does this have to do with Mrs. Palsgraf? Oh, getting there...). The shock knocked down some hanging scales at the other end of the platform, which fell on Helen Palsgraf.

She sued the railroad for the acts of the employees. The case went up to New York's highest court, whose opinion helped establish the concept of "foreseeability."(1) It limits a person's responsibility to the consequences that could reasonably be foreseen from his act. Because the guards, looking at a guy with a newspaper under his arm, could not reasonably have foreseen what would ultimately befall Mrs. Palsgraf, the railroad was not responsible.

Poor Mrs. Palsgraf.

This concept of foreseeability does, or at least should, govern our everyday behavior, as well: You are responsible for the foreseeable effects of your behavior. You think you have absolute free speech? You are wrong. You cannot, for example, falsely scream "fire" in a crowded theater (2).

Anyone paying even cursory attention to the news knows that Egypt is a crowded, burning theater. So what does one thoughtless, Copt (residing safely in the U.S.) consider a good use of his spare time? Creating a B movie (in his basement, it would seem) which insults the Prophet of Islam.

To me, he is like a child who swam across a lake -- leaving his brother behind with the big kid -- before "courageously" broadcasting dirty jokes about the big kid's mother. Bravo.

Not surprisingly, a senior Egyptian military official has warned of mass slaughter.

Just a movie, right? Just like the guards in the railroad who saw nothing but a simple newspaper, right?

Wrong. He knew, having come from Egypt that there was dynamite under that movie. And, I submit, he knew the results that would follow. Yet, he took that dynamite and he spiked it at the ground. And Egypt has gone "Kaboom."

He didn't consider the words of Jesus (as I often don't): "For every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.  For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”(3)

Did not St. Paul exhort us to "[b]less those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep...Repay no one evil for evil...If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men."? (4)

I am not questioning his legal right to do what he did, but don't we all have a moral obligation to consider the foreseeable consequences of our words? We all want to make our mark, and maybe that drove him: He wanted to be someone. He wanted to matter. We're each tempted, at times, to say something "big," to make a splash. But for people with this compulsion, the social media -- Facebook, Twitter, Youtube --are like a cold beer in front of an alcoholic, a finish line at the foot of a steep hill. 

Innocent people are going to die over this. Some shop keeper in Upper Egypt -- who knows nothing but the rising and the setting of the sun -- may kiss his wife goodbye one day and never come back. 

Imperfect as I am, I try to avoid leaving my mark by way of big splashes. They're sloppy and hit things we aren't aiming for. 

It is better, "as much as depends on me," to live according to the maxim of Mother Theresa:   "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." She also admonished, “Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”(5)
(1) Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928), 
(2) Schenck v. United States (U.S.1919)
(3) Matt. 12:36
(4) Rom. 12:14-18
(5) Mother Teresa, No Greater Love


The Amateur said...

Great post, I love you tying together a torts case with current events!

NaderAlfie said...

My torts hornbook is supporting five other books, which are, in turn supporting my monitor.

Jake said...

The stupidity and carelessness of the man who made that movie is beyond my comprehension. I agree that he was aware of the imminent explosion (to use your analogy) that would result from the movie. However, we must not forget that God will be glorified throughout this. Awareness has been brought to the plight of those persecuted by the same people reacting like savages to the film. And thanks be to Him for the masses recognizing that this filmmaker's actions were not representative of the Coptic community, but rather one "extremist," to use a word that I normally refrain from.

I also think you should be prosecuted with the filmmaker for your reference to Palsgraf in a non-legal setting. I'll now have nightmares for a week of my Torts professor who called me an idiot in front of my entire class.

Jeff Edmonds said...

Nader, very nice post. I appreciate particularly the distinction between legal and moral responsibility. It is possible to uphold the legal right of someone to produce incendiary material while also condemning that person morally for a poor choice.

To the comment above me, I do not think that Nader is forgetful that God will be glorified. However, I choose to locate the glory of God in his clear analysis, rather than in the savage reaction of non-Christians.

NaderAlfie said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Jake, give me the name of that professor. Anyone who calls you an idiot has proven *herself* to be the fool!

Your points are very well-taken. I agree with you that the actions are not representative. I think that the reactions are not representative, either. Idle people inciting idle people. Nothing new.