by Justice William W. Bedsworth
Every year our species invents new crimes.
New ways to endanger our neighbors, new ways to swindle each other, new ways to injure persons or property—a whole new coda to our already symphonic collection of disgusting acts. It’s enough to make you feel like you should find a rabbit and apologize to him for your membership in a species so demonstrably inferior to his.
Rabbits, badgers, wombats—all the other species seem to be able to get along just fine—except for the eating-each-other thing. And even that is just one crime. Imagine how proud we could be of our species if the only crime it committed was murder. And that only out of hunger.
What must the other animals think of us? I mean, if you’re a mouse in the courthouse and you go home every night and try to explain what you’ve seen and heard, don’t you think the other mice dismiss you as a hallucinatory lunatic? Don’t you think they say, “That can’t be true; how could you be as smart as they are and screw things up that badly?”
I am old enough to have watched science struggle to define the difference between man and animal since the fifties.1 The scientists seem to hope that if they take the position man is fundamentally different from animals, the creationists will stop throwing rocks at them.
So every third issue of Scientific American2 has an article about what science now thinks is the defining characteristic that makes man qualitatively different from animal.
First they said man was “the tool user.” But they couldn’t get around monkeys using stones, so they changed it to “tool-maker.”
Then they found anteaters and crows modifying twigs to get at larvae and—not wanting to share the human locker-room with larvae eaters—came up with “self-awareness.”
That didn’t last long. Turns out everything from monkeys to magpies has self-awareness.
They tried, “Humans are the only animals who cry.”3 But it turns out elephants also cry. Usually because of something humans have done.
They’ve gone back to the drawing board over and over again, trying all manner of distinctions, looking for something that will disprove Darwin’s thesis that we aren’t a different class of animal, just the smartest animal in the class.
Last I heard, they had decided only humans have the ability to accessorize.
Personally, I think the whole effort is pointless. I think evolution peaked somewhere around 1954 and we’ve been going downhill ever since. Until science acknowledges that fact, I will probably remain a man-is-different-from-animals denier.
But if forced to come up with something that differentiates us from badgers and wombats, I might go along with man being “the crime-inventor.” I’m not aware that badgers or wombats have invented any new rodent-victimization or marsupial-badness during my lifetime. Maybe that’s what makes us unique.
Certainly we’re the only species that has entire legislatures trying to keep up with our criminal imaginations. And—to no one’s surprise—California is a leader in the field.
Every year, our legislature tries—with a valiant futility long familiar to Angel fans—to keep up. They pass a slew of new laws that I have to learn.4
This year we have a new law that makes it illegal for you to check your GPS while driving unless it’s somehow mounted in your car. This requires you to replace, “No, officer, I wasn’t texting; I was checking my GPS,” with, “No, officer, that was not a phone that you saw me stuff down my pants; I don’t have a phone. That was a wombat.”5
We also have a new one that makes it illegal to “possess, purchase, sell, offer for sale, manufacture, distribute, use, sauté, glissade, or pass through the key” powdered alcohol. Cal. Bus. and Prof. Code § 25623.6
Apparently we were running low on ways to screw ourselves up, so we invented powdered alcohol. Sprinkle it on your eggs and you can be blitzed before the Today Show is over.
Wonderful. You ready to apologize to the rabbit now?
I’m not throwing rocks at the legislature. Any more than I would have thrown rocks at Sisyphus.
What you have to remember about the annual myriad of new laws handed down by the legislature is that they are only trying to keep up with big problems. It’s a holding action for them.
They can’t possibly keep up with all the new ways our citizenry finds to gum up the works; all they can do is try to remove the major gum deposits—the ones that threaten the most damage.
So they have to let the little ones go.
For instance, they won’t have time to respond to what I believe to be the state’s first encounter with the crime of assault with a frozen turkey. According to the San Francisco Chronicle,7 “A home robbery in San Francisco took a bizarre turn when a thief grabbed a frozen turkey out of the refrigerator and hit a resident in the head with it . . . .”
This crime is just chock full of new and different stuff. For one thing, the criminal was a woman. A woman in her twenties. Usually when someone breaks into a home and assaults the resident, the suspect is not a young woman.
Also, “The attacker took the turkey and drove off in a silver Lexus, police said.”
A silver Lexus? The burglar had a silver Lexus, but was cash-strapped enough to be breaking into houses and carrying off food?
Let’s recap. It’s 4:30 in the morning. You’re awakened by an intruder in your home. It turns out to be a young woman who runs into your kitchen, opens the freezer, grabs a turkey and clobbers you with it. Then she flees with the turkey . . . in a silver Lexus!
Tell the truth: Is your first instinct to call the police to report a crime or to call your doctor to get your medication levels adjusted?
Isn’t there a part of you that says, “That can’t really have happened; I must have gotten this bruise on my forehead some other way?”
If it had been me, I would have blamed the whole thing on those three years in Berkeley in the Sixties and gone back to bed.
Now obviously the legislature can’t write new laws to cover every bizarre crime. They just don’t have time to churn out Penal Code Section 243(h) (turkey battery) as part of their annual catalogue of new and improved badness.
But if this woman is ever caught and prosecuted, you just know a considerable amount of gray matter and greenbacks will be expended trying to figure out if a turkey is a deadly weapon. Another great moment in the efforts to disprove Darwin.
And speaking of a considerable amount of greenbacks, how’s this for a headline: “$4.5 million worth of makeup stolen from L.A. warehouse, LAPD says.”
Yep. $4.5 million. Makeup. Specifically, eye shadow.
Our species had its choice of spending $4,500,000 on hungry children or on making our eyes look better. We chose eye shadow.
The rabbit is tapping his foot, waiting for your apology.
Crooks broke through the roof of a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley and stole 100,000 packages of “Modern Renaissance” eye shadow. I’ve been studying criminal law for fifty years; this is the first instance of eye shadow crime I’ve ever seen.8
While it reassures me that the superior gender is perhaps not quite as superior as I had feared,9 it also reminds me that as a species, we just keep coming up with new and more embarrassing ways to lie, cheat, and steal. Man, the crime inventor.
If there were referees in the game of life, humans would have fouled out long ago. Like the dinosaurs. But there aren’t, so we just keep slogging on, finding new ways to humiliate ourselves every day.
In the final analysis, that’s what separates us from the animals: self-respect. Animals have self-respect. We have eye shadow thieves and turkey bludgeoners.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at email@example.com. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.