There are two companion pieces in today's Sunday NYTimes that remind me what happens when we hew to the letter of the law in some blind, righteous, opinionated and judgmental way.
The first by Nicholas Kristoff, "Help Thy Neighbor and Go Straight to Prison, decries a recent conviction in Tennessee. A man with a past, Edward Young, rehabilitates himself, gets married, has children, and helps the widow of a neighbor clean out the deceased's belongings among which was a handful of shotgun shells. Young puts them aside so they do not fall into the wrong hands - but when some burglaries happen Young is suspected, his property searched and the forgotten shotgun shells found. Ex-felons are not supposed to possess guns or ammo. Even though Young had not owned a gun, did not own a gun, did not know that helping his neighbor was a crime AND the burglary charges were dismissed Young was sentenced to 15 years. No ifs, ands or buts. He was the stay-at-at-home dad. Now what happens?
Here's the other. As reported by Frank Bruni, Fatal Mercies, familial pity and compassion can get you in a world of hurt. A daughter agrees to hand her ailing, elderly, pain-ridden father his morphine so he can choose the end of life dignity should allow. She is charged with helping a suicide under Pennsylvania law despite the fact that the father rebounded after a 911 call (he eventually died), that the Pennsylvania law is worded broadly and ambiguously about "assistance" and, many's the time that painkillers hastening death are used in hospitals.
I am reminded of a story called Fire On the Mountain about a young man who takes a bet to survive a night on a old mountain top without fire, shelter, food or clothing. He is sustained by watching a fire on a distant mountaintop that is being tended by a friend. When his master learns of this he reneges on his bet to give the young man his freedom as promised. "No fire! means no fire."
In time and thanks to the intercession of one who knew to distinguish the letter of the law from the spirit of the law, the master gets his comeuppance, the young man gets his freedom and the rest of us get a lesson in discretion, compassion, mercy.