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.



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