"It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately." ~ Thomas Jefferson
Minerva, Chapter 1
O'Toole shuffled his feet as the guard led him to the holding cell. He couldn't tell if his emerging headache were due to his first'and last'barfight, the obscene amount of liquor he'd had, or (most likely) some combination of the two.
'In here,' the guard said, beckoning to the cell. Inside were three other prisoners: An Asian and black man sat on the cell bench, listening to a small yet wiry older white man. The older man appeared to be homeless: he wore an ancient three-piece suit in a horrible shade of green, and his originally white dress shirt had a yellowed collar and was missing several buttons. His shoes were dusty black wing tips, through the holes of which the man's green dress socks were visible. The older man had (like O'Toole) not shaved in days, and what white hair he still had protruded from his large head in an excited tangle. Despite his tattered appearance, the other two men seemed quite intent on his words.
The opening of the cell door caused the older man to turn around and face O'Toole and the guard.
'Ah, the agent of the State delivers us yet another citizen-ruler,' the older man said, beaming with glee. 'And as usual, the humble public servant comports himself with courtesy, professionalism, and respect.'
As O'Toole entered the cell, the guard muttered to him, 'Have fun. Looks like today's lesson is Remedial Politics for Gangbangers.'
'Hey fuck dat man,' the black prisoner said. 'The NYPD is the biggest gang there is.'
The guard ignored him and cast a quick look of disgust at the older man. He closed the cell and walked back down the corridor.
O'Toole collapsed onto a bench on the far side of the cell. The older man resumed his 'lesson' to the two others.
'Now Michael, I cannot stress this enough,' he said to the Asian, a man who looked in his late twenties and seemed quite nervous. 'Yes, your family is not going to approve of what has happened. They are going to be disappointed. But keep in mind that you have done absolutely nothing wrong.'
Michael's head, which had drooped down so that he stared at the floor, snapped back up. He looked with anxious curiosity at the older man.
'That's right, you did nothing wrong. Think about it: What exactly have you done? There were poor farmers in Colombia , growing a plant. There were rich kids in America , who wanted the plant. And what did you do? Why, you helped them to make a mutually advantageous exchange.
'Did you hurt anyone? No. Did you steal anything from anybody? No. So it's perfectly understandable for you to regret the pain this will cause your family, and maybe you wish you had done something else with your life. But do not let them''the man pointed a thumb in the direction of the corridor''convince you that you're a bad person. You must not give them that power over you.'
'Yeah I know what you're sayin,' Michael said in a weak voice. 'But those cops told me I was fucked. They said I could get twenty-five years for that shit.'
'Those fucking pigs,' muttered the black man. Michael swallowed hard and wiped his right eye with the back of his left wrist.
'Michael Michael,' the older man said in a gentle voice. 'You are absolutely not going to spend twenty-five years in prison. I would be surprised if you served more than five.'
Michael's throat trembled. 'Yeah but five years''
'Michael, look at me. You are a gifted individual and I want you to use your powers of reason. What's done is done. You must look at this as a learning experience. Now you know what the State can and will do to its opponents. The hopelessness in your life? This,' he held up his hands to signify the cell, 'is its ultimate cause. There is a war going on, Michael, and you are now one of its official casualties.
'It's regrettable, of course. Just as a soldier wounded in combat laments his fate. But the soldier is not ashamed of himself. He is proud of what he has done, and he would gladly do it again.
'I know you don't believe me right now, but I assure you, you will one day walk out of prison as a new man, a stronger man. The scales will have fallen from your eyes. We live in an unjust society, Michael. And in such a society, the place for a just man is prison.'
'What in the hell are you talking about?' O'Toole could no longer restrain himself. The glib bum had finally worn away his patience. O'Toole looked sternly at Michael. 'Son, I'm sorry about your situation. But what you need to do is get yourself a lawyer, and stop taking advice from your cellmate.' Having spoken his piece, O'Toole laid himself back on the bench.
There was a momentary silence. The older man broke it.
'Forgive me, good sir, but you seem to have given young Michael contradictory counsel. He is in the paradoxical position of either listening to you'one of his cellmates'and thus spurning your advice, or of following your suggestion, by disregarding your suggestions.'
O'Toole was flabbergasted, but in no mood to argue. 'Look,' he said calmly, 'I realize your lifestyle is a bit'different from mine, and I'm not saying it's a bad one. But some of us have li'responsibilities on the outside. And I really don't think you should be telling some young kid that it's romantic to be a coke dealer.'
The older man waited a moment before speaking.
'Tell me, do you believe Michael here deserves to be in prison for what he has done? You are in here for violence. He is in here for commerce.'
O'Toole realized that his eye must have been quite a sight. He sighed. 'Look, I don't want to argue with you; I've got a bad headache. I didn't mean to offend you, and I appreciate that you're trying to cheer this guy up.' O'Toole rested his head back on the bench and closed his eyes.
'Your response intrigues me,' the older man began after another short pause. 'This boy's life as he knows it has now ended. You feel perfectly justified in challenging my comments, and perfectly qualified to offer him your advice, yet you have neither the will nor apparently the ability at the moment to engage in abstract thought. It seemed you very much did 'want to argue' a moment ago when you chastised me.'
What a nightmare, O'Toole thought. After a moment he relaxed. Well, can't blame the guy; this is probably a treat for him to get a roof over his head and have an audience.
'Look, I've got no problem if you want to legalize drugs. That's fine; if they legalize it, more power to you. I'll even sign a referendum on it. But right now there are serious legal penalties for dealing cocaine, and I think you're doing a disservice by advising people when you're not a legal expert.'
The black man chuckled. 'Don' know who he's dealin with,' he muttered.
The older man said to O'Toole, 'Again your position intrigues me. You feel yourself competent to participate in a referendum on the matter; you are willing to cast your vote for one side of the question. Yet you are unwilling to discuss why you would vote in this way. Would you have been so cavalier with, say, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II? The Nazis weren't the only ones with concentration camps during that war, you know.'
Here we go' O'Toole considered for a moment, then decided it wasn't worth it. 'Sir, I'm not going to have a debate with you. You've obviously put a great deal of thought into your beliefs, and I respect that. I'm sorry to have interrupted your discussion. Please resume it and I won't bother you again.'
The older man smiled and looked back at the other two prisoners. His voice returned to its previous level, and O'Toole closed his eyes again.
'Although our new guest does not want to discuss the matter,' the older man said in a gentle voice, 'it is worth considering why certain drugs'not all of them, mind you'are currently illegal.
'Some say it's to reduce crime. After all, look at the condition of inner cities, and the behavior of drug dealers.' The older man paused to survey his audience. The younger man, Michael, was staring at the floor. But the other fellow had a grin on his face and was paying close attention.
'But if we all agree that an addict will do anything, even steal or kill, to get his next fix, then why in the world would we enact policies that make drugs such as cocaine hundreds of times more expensive than they would be if legalized? Will that not simply force a junkie to commit more crimes to finance his habit?
'And yes, what of gang warfare? Do the drugs themselves drive dealers to shoot each other? Why then don't liquor store owners take contracts out on each other? No, it is not drugs that cause violence and crime, but drug prohibition. Think about it: The government sends around groups of heavily armed men, who will kidnap and hold hostage anyone caught selling certain substances. And then everyone wonders why reckless and violent individuals end up being the ones who sell these substances.'
O'Toole chuckled. He's got it all figured out, he thought and smiled. He found that if he viewed the older man's monologue as a form of entertainment, he could relax and even drift into a light sleep.