Friday, June 21, 2013

Belated Thoughts on Moral Boundaries ....

from Jacqueline

I feel like Alice's white rabbit today - rushing around with watch in my hand saying, "I'm late, I'm late ...." but he didn't then say, "with my Naked Authors post!!"

Yes, I'm late, but I have an excuse.  You know that cold?  Well, it hung around long enough to cause a bit more trouble, and now I am on the dreaded antibiotics because it went down into my trachea - like Alice down that darn hole!  But all will be well, don't you worry! I come from hardy stock.

Just a couple of random thoughts to throw into the pot this week, I suppose about thresholds.  How do some people live life on the edge?  I know we all take risks - heck, take one look at my horse, Oliver, and you might say, "Well that woman lives life on the edge every single day!"  His feet are like dinner plates, so just one false step and I would have a crushed foot - thank heavens he is Shoeless Ollie!  But there are people who just go beyond the threshold of - what?  Common sense?  The limits of their moral compass?  And before I go on, I should preface all of this with a note to the effect that I am writing by the seat of my pants here - sort of "stream of consciousness" notes.

I've been thinking about this notion of a moral threshold from different angles.  Maybe that comes from being a writer who - like it or not - deals in death (most mysteries have a suspicious death somewhere along the line).  Here's one thing I've been thinking about this week - that former Nazi guard and all round nasty piece of work (and a naturalized US citizen, I might add) who was discovered living in Wisconsin.  Not only do I wonder how it is that these these Nazis live so long (wasn't the last discovery a man in his nineties?  This one is 83), but what does it feel like every day, living with the memories of what you've done, and wondering if you're going to get caught? I mean, it's one thing keeping a low profile in Uruguay or Bolivia (which is where they seemed to go en mass after the war, as if south America was a latter day Ellis Island for former Nazi guards) - but Wisconsin?  Land of the cheese?  Land of really friendly people?  Ah, there you go - friendly people.  Many of them blonde. People who think the best of their neighbors.  I think the Nazi has been deported now. Good. I hope it was at the back of the 'plane on a very bumpy flight.  But who would want him?   Maybe there are people in the world who can just shut it all out, the fact that they had done something so heinous. Maybe they don't see the terror in their mind's eye every single day.  But if it was me, I couldn't take the pressure of what I had been involved in for one single minute. I would have to kill myself.

Onto something completely different.  Living on the edge takes all sorts. Yesterday I drove up from southern California to the Bay Area - a good 400-mile drive.  Now, anyone who has been along Highway 101 in recent years will know that the California Highway Patrol hunt in packs along great stretches of the route.  Do not assume they cannot see you, even in that bit in the middle where you never quite know where you are (around Camp Roberts).  King City used to be the hot-spot, but now, you had just better mind your p's and q's.  And why rush anyway?  It's a lovely drive and perhaps I have reached the stage in life where I just want to eventually get to where I am going.  My rallying days are over (and you think I'm kidding?).  I was somewhere in the region of Salinas when a guy in a white BMW went racing past, probably around 85 miles per hour.  "You'd better watch yourself, pal," I thought.  I even mentioned it to the dog, who had woken up for a quick look to see where we were.  I noticed the car because I used to have one of a similar vintage - a  1996 model, though mine was a stick-shift 345i, and it was the Ultimate Flying Machine.  My husband hated that car and said it was like a tank.  I digress.  I passed the BMW a short time later - he had been pulled over by the CHP.  Fifteen minutes after that he went zooming past me again.  Around Gilroy, I passed him, pulled over by the CHP.  Same thing again, no sooner had he been allowed to go on his way, than he went flying past in his white Beemer at a silly speed, and sure enough, I saw him once more by the side of the road having what was surely a very interesting conversation with the CHP.  If it were me, I would have just kept going and made my way straight to San Quentin - cut out the middle man and just get yourself put inside.  Makes you wonder though, doesn't it?

I think some people are simply adrenalin junkies in a really negative way - to say the least.  Life on the edge.  I remember, years ago, when I was in my teens and going through a Leon Uris phase, I read his novel QBVII, and one of the things - perhaps it was in the dialogue - that struck me was the notion that we all have a capacity for evil, and that in some people there are circumstances that allow for that evil to flourish.  Take the Wisconsin Nazi.  Maybe it's to do with thresholds and limits, and that when we break through our own moral threshold, there are no limits, no boundaries any more.  And I wonder how one lives with that, afterwards.  The guy in the Beemer obviously thought "f**k it" after the first ticket (I would have been mortified), so he'd crashed through some threshold of responsibility.  Speeding kills, and maybe that's OK if all you want to do is experience the thrill of teetering on the edge of a monumental automobile wreck that only involves you.  But what about the other lives you are likely to take with you on your way to wild-ride heaven?  It makes me have a good deal of compassion for the CHP and emergency services - they're the ones who have to deal with the aftermath of an idiot who has lost his grip, so when it's so blatant, no wonder they get ticket-happy.

I remember once, when I was about fourteen, I did something at school that I never thought I would do. Now, first of all, I will tell you that I was a good kid. I never gave a teacher any lip and I did as I was told.  There was a part-time drama teacher at the school who was a bit of a fop, a dandy, a man in his sixties, probably, who always seemed as if he'd dropped out the the court of King George IV. He wore linen suits in the summer and always a droopy bow tie.  But he was essentially harmless.  One day he called me out of the assembly hall for talking to my friend.  I wasn't the only one talking, but he called me out - it was during rehearsals for the annual school play.  He stood in front of me just going on about the talking, and I said, "Oh for God's sake, will you just dry up?  You're getting on my bloody nerves."  And he did not know what to do.  I was a good girl, not like Maxine whatever-her-name-was with the dyed blonde hair, or Cheryl whose last name I know but wouldn't dare to mention in case she sees this post and still sharpens the edge of her steel comb, just in case someone ticked her off.  He just looked at me and started shaking, which of course set me off and I began to laugh.  Then I just walked off and returned to my seat.  I had broken through my moral boundary - and I knew it.  Not only that, it scared the heck out of me, really. I didn't apologize - I was probably too embarrassed and sick of myself - but I never, ever did anything like that again.  You do something once, and it can be an anomaly, an error, perhaps.  Twice, and you've got yourself a habit.  That's what happened to Maxine and Cheryl.

I think that's where I'm going with this ramble - that there are people out there who, in one way or another, break through a personal boundary, a moral, human boundary.  I've occasionally thought about that teacher over the years. And the fact that over 45 years later it still bothers me now and again makes me wonder if that Nazi lost any sleep about that most dreadful of moral boundaries he crossed, and how he lived with himself - and for so darn long!  And is the guy in the white Beemer clutching his head today and thinking, "Geez, what was I thinking?  I could have killed someone."  (He will soon be thinking about it - when his license is revoked, that's for sure).  But I suppose there are people everywhere with their secrets, harboring knowledge of a boundary ruptured - be it to do with respect for others, a personal code of kindness, or a belief that killing another person is wrong.  And that's probably why so many people read mysteries and thrillers, because as writers in this genre, that's one of the things we're exploring all the time - the crossing of moral boundaries.

Drive safe, won't you - really, being late doesn't really matter.  Just don't make a habit of it - leave a bit earlier.

And have a good weekend!


  1. It's amazing how doing something wrong that normally is not part of your makeup can haunt you for years. On the other hand, hooray the CHPs were out and got this guy 3 times. I'm always grousing about where are the cops when someone obnoxious is driving about. . .

  2. Loved the stream of consciousness blog... but I started thinking: if this alleged Nazi guard was truly 83, that means he was 15 when the War ended (and 3 when Hitler came to power). I know nothing about the case, and have no comment about it, but it made me ponder.

    Secondly, just finished "Leaving Everything Most Loved," and loved it. I had to wait 2 months to start it, and ration the chapters I read each day, so that I wouldn't race through it in a day and a half, as I have previous Maisie Dobbs novels. It raised a lot of questions for me (including some about remberances of previous cases). So, now I have the plan to re-read all the Maisie Dobbs novels before the next one comes out.

    Thanks, Jonathan

  3. from Jacqueline

    You're right, Pat, I have often wondered where the CHP were when someone is driving like a maniac - though I admit, another time on the 101, just south of the Salinas area (again!), the driver of a huge truck came right up behind me, then pulled out and steamed past at quite a speed. I muttered something along the lines of "Where are the CHP?" when there was a siren behind me a flashing lights, and the next thing I know, the truck was on the shoulder - I felt very pleased at that one.

    And Jonathan, you are absolutely right. Perhaps he's 93, that would be more like it (I knew there was something wrong with 83). Thanks for the comments on Leaving Everything Most Loved - glad to know you loved it!!!

  4. I'm thinking the first cop radioed ahead and told his buddies to BOLO for the white Beemer. Anyway, nice to see justice happen once in a while.

  5. Based on my teaching experience, there was probably celebration in the teachers' lounge that you could speak up -- a very valuable life skill, and we teachers worry about the quiet ones . . . Congratulations and cut yourself some slack. ;-)

  6. from Jacqueline

    I think I'm losing it, Paul - took me a bit to work out that BOLO was probably Be On Look Out - or does it mean something else? I'm not what you might call "au fait" with the police lingo. And Mary, thank you for your comment. Part of me is glad I spoke my mind - that particular teacher liked the sound of his own voice, and I think he picked on me because I was a pretty safe bet not to answer back ... until I did just that, of course. So, OK, I'll cut myself some slack (though I think if my mother reads the blog she will probably be horrified, because it certainly didn't make it back to her over forty years ago!!).

  7. from Jonathan

    Did a little research (just a web search): the former Nazi guard found in Wisconsin, Josias Kumpf, was 83 in 2009. He was found to have participated in a mass shooting in Poland in 1943. So, he was 7 when Hitler came to power, 17 during the mass shooting, and 19 at the end of the War. He was deported to Austria in 2009.

    I'm still pondering this situation. How old does someone have to be before they should "know better?" At what age does someone acquire a moral compass, and how does someone acquire a moral compass in the face of overwhelming opposition? If extraordinary strength of character is necessary, what happens to ordinary people? Hmmmmm...

  8. Wonder if you read the Sunday Philosophy series by Alexander McCall Smith? The main character, Isabel Dalhousie, is a moral philosopher.

    About that driver, how often does that happen? We think "where's the police when one is needed?" and there is the Highway police catching the same driver several times. I am glad no one got hurt.

    ~ Diana