By Scott Graber
It is Sunday, May 3, and I’m in our “gray room.” This room comes with gray-painted walls and floor-to-ceiling bookcases that are painted that same color.
There is also a gray sofa, an upright piano and fireplace. A decorator (or realtor) would call it “intimate” – Susan and I say ‘cozy.’
Today’s Beaufort Gazette talks of newly opened beaches; the promise of baseball; and relaxing the “lockdown” rules that have governed our lives and our consciousness these last six weeks. But what I’m interested in is what happens next. Are we really going to be different after this microbe moves on?
There is nothing in today’s Gazette on this topic. Nothing specific.
But several days ago Lance Morrow, writing in the Wall Street Journal, wrote about an earthquake in Portugal — in 1755 — that killed 50,000 people. The earthquake was followed by fire and a tsunami that killed more Portuguese people.
Morrow wrote, “The ground that people stood on — the ground of religious and philosophical belief — became treacherous, latent with danger, unbelief, apocalypse. It was only 34 years between the Lisbon earthquake and the French Revolution.”
Morrow suggests that the overthrow of the French monarchy — the killing of God-appointed kings — was attributable to the Lisbon earthquake and its aftermath. He suggests that the notion that kings were endorsed by God, legitimized by the Catholic Church, took a fatal hit in 1755.
Making this kind of (not so obvious) connection is a great way to start a column. Pointing out that the Turks, for example, left bags of coffee behind after their siege of Vienna in 1683; and that the caffeinated drink quickly spread across Europe and displaced beer; and that the caffeine-fueled Enlightenment was a direct consequence of these left-behind beans is a marvelous way to get one’s attention.
But Lance Morrow moves his piece into deeper water.
“Theologians used to draw a distinction between natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil means earthquakes, floods, cancer and other such afflictions for which human beings cannot reasonable be blamed. Moral evil was the kind that is, one way or the other, man’s fault. Moral evil would be Auschwitz, or Pol Pot’s killing fields, to cite extreme examples.”
Morrow goes on to say that “failure to contain the virus, however, carried the matter over into the category of evils — torts of policy and management — for which humans may be held accountable.”
In other words, somebody, somewhere in China let the virus loose; somebody didn’t put it back; and somebody didn’t sound an alarm. This wasn’t a forgivable mistake. It was — as we lawyers sometimes say — “actionable.”
All of which brings me back to a conversation I had many years ago with a Congolese friend, Herve’ Miabilangana, as we were drinking NGok (beer) in Brazzaville.
“Herve” I began, “How to you explain Mobutu Sese Seko; or Bokassa; or even somebody like Robert Mugabe? How do those men do the monstrous killings that they do?
“There is,” he said with some obvious wariness, “a thing called ‘evil’ — some say Satan. But whether or not you personalize evil, it gets inside and infects the person. And it has infected Mobutu.”
As I write these lines I realize I have recounted this conversation in another, earlier column. So if these words look familiar, don’t be surprised.
But here, in the Western World, we have largely departed the concept of evil as a sentient, free-roaming creature putting very bad choices, or releasing bad viruses into our individual lives.
“Still there remains a residual temptation to see the coronavirus as inscrutable pushback, as a ferocious reality check. Is the pandemic some sort of cosmic rebuke? If so, a rebuke by whom and of what?” Morrow continues.
There is, in the law books, a dusty defense called, “unavoidable accident.”
“The burden is upon the Plaintiff to show that the injuries he complains of were not the result of an unavoidable accident. The mere fact that an accident happened, standing alone, does not permit you to assume that someone had to have caused it.” (South Carolina Requests to Charge, 23-19)
“Unavoidable accident” is not seen much these days. One may throw it into one’s pleadings, but a jury rarely comes back saying the car wreck just couldn’t be helped.
But whether one believes this pandemic is cosmic in origin, or was inevitable and unavoidable, the American landscape is now rich with targets of those seeking accountability for the misery, the pain and the anxiety.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at email@example.com.