This column has to begin with me making a sincere, heartfelt apology to the members of the Baltimore County Bar Association. I was to speak on the topic "The Rule of Law" at the association's Law Day breakfast Thursday morning, but I didn't make it.
I could offer an excuse, but I remember what Staff Sgt. Wallace Tidwell told me about excuses more than 34 years ago when I entered Air Force boot camp in San Antonio.
The fact is, I just blew it. Usually, I let my wife know about my speaking engagements so that when the date approaches she can jog the old memory for me. But this time around, I passed on bothering the wife and decided I'd remember myself for a change. You can see how well that worked out. (I bought a book once about improving my memory, but I forgot where I put it.)
Now that I've apologized, it seems proper for me to let the bar association members know what they would have heard if I didn't have a mind like a sieve. Since the topic was "The Rule of Law," I'd have begun my speech by telling members that Americans might be only a generation or two from asking the question, "The rule of WHAT?"
Is it just me, or has anybody else noticed that America is becoming a society where it's all the rage for people to pick and choose which laws they'll obey and which ones they won't?
I was driving east on Belvedere Avenue one day when I stopped for a red light where the street runs into Northern Parkway. The sign there is big enough for any literate driver to read clearly: "No Turn On Red, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m." (I guess I'll give my position now: Illiterate people really shouldn't be driving.)
Now, I'd seen drivers completely ignore that sign and make illegal turns on red between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. before. But this particular day -- around high noon, sunny, with nary a cloud in the sky -- one of these scofflaws was behind me, angrily honking his horn for me to make the right turn on red so he could follow.
I ignored the dolt, who eventually swung around me and made the illegal turn on red. This character didn't just want to break the law himself; he wanted me to join him. There seem to be scores of these characters out there. That sign saying there's no turn on red between certain hours? Hey, why not ignore it?
Approaching a traffic light that's just turned red? Hey, why not run it? It starts off with little things and then goes on to the big ones. That law saying that people can't enter the United States illegally or stay here once their visas have expired? If it doesn't work for you or your ethnic group, or is at odds with your politics, why not break it or encourage it to be broken?
There is a federal law in this country pressuring states to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages to anyone younger than age 21. I happen to interact and speak with teens and adults in the age range of 15 to 22 on a regular basis, and I think I'm on safe ground when I say the state laws that grow out of the federal government's pressure are frequently broken.
Now, you might feel that the government's intent is perfectly valid or it's downright silly. The point is that there are thousands, perhaps even millions, of American teens who have decided that they want to drink.
How did we get to this point, where picking and choosing which laws we'll obey and which ones we'll break has become the norm rather than the exception? Were conservatives of the 1960s right: Was America at the time becoming a society that was too permissive -- and dismissive -- of the law?
This was the era when civil rights activists used widespread civil disobedience to achieve their goals. When black Americans rioted in scores of American cities, some excused the arson and looting by calling the civil disturbances acts of rebellion, not criminality.
Conservatives of that time pointed out the pitfalls of civil disobedience: If we permit it for a good cause, what's to stop others from using it for a bad cause? When Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace blocked black students from entering the University of Alabama in clear defiance of federal law in 1962, wasn't that an act of civil disobedience?
Didn't rioting whites throughout American history -- who had no more need for the rule of law than rioting blacks of the 1960s did --help create the unjust conditions African-Americans found themselves in?
James Farmer, the late civil rights activist who was the head of the Congress of Racial Equality, said in his autobiography, Lay Bare The Heart, that NAACP head Roy Wilkins used to chide Martin Luther King Jr. about civil disobedience. It was the NAACP working through the courts, Wilkins told King, not civil rights demonstrations, that won most of the battles black Americans waged for equality.
In other words, it was that old reliable standby -- the rule of law -- that won the day.