Zeitoun and the Rule of Law


I spent the other day reading a book my wife gave me for Christmas, Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. It’s the report of one family’s ordeal in the wake of Katrina, the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005. Although the book was written in 2009, and won awards, it escaped my radar.

There is so much to love about this book. The protagonist, Abdulrhman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant, is my kind of guy. He’s stubborn. He doesn’t listen. He works perhaps too hard. When his wife catches wind of a major storm’s approach, he largely ignores her and goes about his business. Yet he loves her, and he loves their children. He is a hero.

When the storm finally strikes, and New Orleans is flooded, he remains in the city to help others. His wife and children are elsewhere, living in safety with relatives. When he is arrested, imprisoned, and, at one point accused of being a terrorist, one senses all at once how thin is the thread that binds a people. The rule of law disappeared in New Orleans for some brief period. It was replaced with brute, unreasoning force, and that force crippled, for a time, the law.

I read Zeitoun in a sitting, unable to put the book down, even as the holiday festivities in my household swirled around me. When the protagonist was picked up by a collection of armed lawmen and whisked off to detention, his wife, unaware of whether he was dead or alive, struggled with despair and a loss of hope. She was prepared to face the future without him when word that he was still alive was leaked to her by a prison chaplain. She struggled to find the location of a makeshift court at which her husband’s bond would be argued, after weeks of incarceration. A prosecutor told her the location of the courthouse was private.

Zeitoun spent 23 days in captivity, most of them held incommunicado by federal authorities. It remains an outrage.

When Zeitoun was finally released, Eggers wrote of the great strain his absence had placed not just on his family, but on the fabric of his beliefs. Was this a nation committed to fairness, to due process of law? Had Zeitoun been treated as a terrorist simply because he was a native of Syria? The book ends on a dark, but hopeful note. Our ideals are always at risk, but small acts of individual courage remain -- perhaps that is all that truly remains.

I told friends about the book immediately after reading it. It inspired me, I said. Reading it reminded me of the importance of lawful process, or why the law mattered. I was raring to return to court, to fight another day. Zeitoun seemed almost heroic to me. I was even tempted to contribute money to a nonprofit foundation he set up dedicated to the support of human rights around the world.

“You know he was arrested this year for trying to put a contract out on his wife,” a friend observed.

I thought it was a joke. Zeitoun? A modern Odysseus, trapped between the Scylla of our fears and the Charybdis of our hopes? But a quick search of back issues of The New York Times confirmed the sorry truth: Zeitoun’s marriage foundered in the years since his release. He had become abusive toward his wife, now his ex-wife. The Times reported his arrest for trying to hire someone to kill his wife, her son, and another man.

The news hit me like a hurricane, devastating that part of me that still wants to believe in a good wholly apart from evil. 

I don’t know what happened to Zeitoun the man. He lost his way. He succumbed to dreams of violence. He fouled his own nest.

Yet for all that the story of what he endured in Katrina’s wake still inspires, even if it reminds that, in the law, at least, there are no heroes -- there is simple adherence to respect for lawful process, and the never-ending fight to get things right.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.



Guns Are Just Like Cigarettes

Cigarettes don’t kill people, people do. That would be the tobacco lobby lying to the world. We’d recognize the claim at once as transparent nonsense. So we tax tobacco, using the proceeds to pay for, among other things, health-care for those destroying themselves by indulging their right to smoke.

Why not use the same public policy tools to attempt to control gun violence?

I concede a hidden agenda. Were it within my power, I’d repeal the Second Amendment. It is an anachronism. We aren’t armed against foreign invaders; no militia is necessary to protect against a wild frontier. And, despite all the brash whining of politicos, we really don’t take seriously the notion that the government has become a tyranny. We aren’t arming ourselves to preserve liberty.

We are armed to recreate the state of nature, a place in which, as Thomas Hobbes argued, life is “nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.” We are armed because we fear one another, not the state. So we’re making a violent frontier out of inner cities, suburbia, and now, classrooms.

Guns, like cigarettes, kill people.

So if we won’t outlaw the private possession of firearms, let’s at least take steps to make sure gun manufacturers, gun sellers, and gun owners both pay the social costs associated with gun violence and have a stake in preventing guns from flooding the streets. We can do this with a tax and civil forfeiture policy.

The price of a pack of cigarettes in Connecticut is roughly $9. Most of that is tax. Why not a hefty tax on the sale of each gun? Let’s face it, guns are not necessities. You want the luxury of arming yourself in preparation for Armageddon? Then why not pay for it by contributing something to the inevitable costs associated with gun violence in terms of imprisonment, injury, lost wages and death? I’ll bet we could put a dent in the national debt taxing guns.

When an inherently dangerous product is placed in the stream of commerce, all those who introduced the product can be forced to share the liability for the harm the product causes. Why not treat guns in this manner?

Suppose a Colt firearm is used in a murder. Upon proof that the Colt was used, assess a $250,000 fine against the manufacturer, a $10,000 fine against the seller, and $5,000 fine against each registered owner. These fines would catch the attention of folks trucking and bartering in firearms. It might also inspire a sense of greater accountability and responsibility.

It is not uncommon in large urban areas for armed suburbanites to troll the city’s illegal drug markets looking to trade a gun for narcotics. Often a young man or woman steals a parent’s gun to trade for an evening’s pleasure. These guns remain in the inner city, where they are used in catastrophic acts of violence over often trifling causes. If gun owners knew they were going to get smacked with a hefty fine when their guns killed someone, I suspect they’d take greater pains to secure their guns.

I can hear the gunpowder chorus now: Those using the guns to kill should be responsible, not us. Most gun owners are pacific, peace-loving people. That begs the question. Most smokers are peaceable, too. I am simply asking that we use social policy to manage risk and assess costs.

Another two-step used to divert attention from gun violence is to argue that what we really need it more effective mental-health treatment. This is a variant on the guns don’t kill people argument: if we had better mental health treatment, there’d be fewer murders, at least fewer mass murders.

That’s not much of an argument. One in four Americans will suffer depression in their lives. Many will suffer psychoses of one sort or another. Millions take mood altering medications. The ubiquity of mental illness is really another argument in favor of gun control: With all these smoldering personalities in the world, why do we think drenching ourselves with gasoline will make us safe?

You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold, dead fingers, a friend said not long ago. Fine, I say. Game on. It’s time to get serious about gun control. Gun violence is a matter of life and death. Don’t expect me to fight fair against the fear your gun will kill me.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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