Law, like all aspects of human behavior, is arbitrary.
Basically, that means we make it up as we go along, and that's not a bad thing. You see, life is random and flexibility is required. When wood loses its flexibility it loses its strength, it becomes brittle.
In the same way the law, and indeed our everyday sense of right and wrong, must remain flexible in order to be effective. It must be able to deal with unforeseeable circumstances, or as Donald Rumsfeld would say, "the things we don't know we don't know."
A case in point is that against Nathaniel Heatwole, the 20-year-old college student who smuggled box cutters onto a Southwest Airlines flight to prove a point. His point, it would seem, was taken, as evidenced by the fact that he is now an official trainer for federal airport screeners.
As part of a plea bargain, Heatwole made a video based on his experience to reveal the holes in the system that allowed him to do what he did. Heatwole might also have to serve up to six months in jail and pay a $5,000 fine, depending on what happens at his sentencing in June.
I suspect he will not get that much of a penalty, nor should he. Maybe some small slap on the wrist is called for, since he did break the law, but the making of the video shows that what he did had merit. By breaking the law, he made our society safer.
How puzzling that case must be for a judge. Instinctively any judge would say that the law is the law and those who break the law should pay. That is an absolute that is higher than the good achieved by Heatwole's self-described "act of civil disobedience," some would say.
And why is that? Because law is an illusion, it is based on choice. We all choose to obey the law or not to obey the law. And if anyone is allowed to freely choose not to obey, even for the best of reasons, it sets a precedent that you can get a away with a crime if you really think you're doing the right thing.
In Heatwole's case, he was right. There were holes in the security system and he illustrated just how big those holes are. Would anyone have listened to him if he had just written a letter?
But, contrary to the wishes of some, Heatwole should not be given a medal and just let go. He could get the medal, but it will have to cost him some, because the next person may not be right.
It must be demonstrated that violating the law, even when you think you're right, carries at least some penalty or such a decision may be taken too lightly. In other words, you should really put some thought into your actions before breaking a law, and people are less inclined to think about what they're doing unless there are consequences.
So Heatwole should be punished, but not much. I say a fine of between $200 to $500, depending on his income. For most college students, that's a lot of money. It could cost him that stereo he's been wanting, or maybe tickets to a concert.
Otherwise, if he just gets away with it, he might decide it's OK to smuggle a bomb onto an Amtrak train. He wouldn't mean to hurt anybody, but accidents happen.
If he truly did what he did in order to serve a higher purpose, he should be willing to pay that minor price. And the law must be able to forgive him enough to keep the penalty light, because, after all, he was right.
A law prohibiting box cutters on airplanes is both good and necessary. When the law was passed it must have been almost impossible to imagine a time when somebody could be justified in any way in breaking that law.
But there is an exception to every rule, and Heatwole proved that.
Thus, the law must bend without breaking to allow the system it supports (our society) to survive.
Ed Brock covers public safety and municipalities for the News Daily. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.