Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Sweet Hereafter*

The survivors of the Bluffton University baseball players who were killed last March have filed suit. No one is assigning blame yet -- this suit was filed to figure out who, exactly, should be sued -- but they will. They will despite the fact that the NTSB hasn't assigned blame. They will despite the fact that, from a distance anyway, it looks like an accident in the most general sense of the term. A tragic one to be sure, but an accident all the same.

But I'm not writing to criticize this and the inevitable additional lawsuits that will come from it all. For one thing I don't know all of the facts, and the facts matter. More to the point, however, is the fact that I'm a civil litigator by trade, and I have to assume that anything I say about the merits of these particular suits is colored by the fact that whatever objectivity I once had about such things has been beaten out of me in the decade I've toiled in this profession. Plaintiffs' lawyers sue for a living and are predisposed to see liability everywhere, facts be damned. I usually defend lawsuits, so I am predisposed to see liability nowhere, facts be damned. We're both wrong and biased and jaded and we simply have to acknowledge these facts before allowing ourselves to spew our usual nonsense.

But even if I don't feel comfortable commenting on the merits of these suits, I do find myself fascinated by them. No, not the legal aspects -- if you haven't figured it out by now, ShysterBall is where I come to escape the law, not embrace it -- but the emotional ones. How and why we assign blame. How our personal experience with grief translates into action.

We're conditioned to accept and move on after the (hopefully) old-age deaths of our grandparents and eventually our parents, but when the unexpected or unspeakable occurs -- an untimely death from accident or violence, especially when a young person is involved -- we are compelled to do more than merely accept and move on. We must seek justice even if we cannot be made whole. We must assign blame even if there is no one particularly blameworthy. We must seek answers even though we know that answers do not exist.

More often than not we turn to the legal system to sort all of this out, converting questions of spiritual, moral, or cosmic justice into simple allocations of liability based on theories that were moderately well thought out by people who, for the most part, lived and died before the advent of the automobile. Our creaky system does the best it can, but even the winners usually don't walk away satisfied. How can they when, at best, they are trading the life and love of those dear to them for some money? But what option do we have? While even a successful lawsuit is likely to bring pain and an inadequate return in the end, failing to do anything is likely to feel like wholesale surrender. Even if we know that the all-too-often invoked concept of "closure" is a fantasy, we have no choice but to look for answers. To assign blame. To seek justice. All of this, it seems, leads to a second tragedy. The tragedy of the survivors who are left with no good options after hope and meaning have left their lives.

Watching all of this for the past ten years has led me to believe that maybe the system itself isn't the problem. Maybe the problem is thinking that there is any hope or meaning in life in the first place. That the best we can do is to occupy ourselves with enjoyable pursuits -- like baseball -- during those intervals between inevitable, senseless tragedy. While this may appear on the surface to be an overly pessimistic view of life, on balance, such a view allows one to spend far more of the time they have on this Earth enjoying themselves, unburdened by the task of having to make sense of it all. To right what we imagine to be wrongs when, in reality, it's all pretty much wrong and there isn't a whole hell of a lot we can do about it.

Which brings me back to Bluffton. Given who I am and how I feel about all of this I suppose I'm not in the position to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't do with their grief, but the fact remains that the seven people who died on that bus were in Atlanta because of some ballgames. I hope the survivors cum plaintiffs remember that as they begin their quest for answers, blame, and justice. I hope that, between court dates, they can take in some baseball games and that by doing so they can either forget or commune with their pain -- depending on what they need more at the moment -- by doing so.

*For those unaware, the title of this post is that of Russell Banks' 1991 novel and Atom Egoyan's 1997 film of the same name, which, in my view, constitute the most intelligent and moving depictions of loss ever committed to page and screen. Appropriately enough, The Sweet Hereafter's narrative is propelled by, of all things, a tragic bus accident.

No comments: