Monday, November 22, 2010

$20 and a Goat

(With my apologies to those who already know it ends, I have recently rewritten what remains perhaps the greatest story that has ever happened in the history of Zachary Asher Mason. The Assassination of James Brown is now my case for why I want to go to law school to study property, torts and international law. At the very least, I'd like to hope that it makes my application a memorable read.)

While I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the African nation of Mali, I found that “property” and “property rights” were very nebulous concepts. Every man in the Minianka tribe with whom I lived had his own plot of land over which he had exclusive claim to farm – but the fields were demarcated only by the whims of the village chief. Every man was the undisputable owner of the millet he harvested – but the Miniankas believe that it is every man’s obligation to share his food with his fellow clansmen. Property rights did exist in Minianka culture, but if one man had it and another man believed that he deserved it then who had the right to use that property was up for debate.

My interest in the law was piqued when a twist of fate required that I argue a case of property rights before the Minianka tribal elders. I came to the elder council believing that the facts of my case were very straightforward; I owned a cat upon which I bestowed the name James, and this cat was my sovereign property. One night my cat ventured beyond the realm of my chain-link fence and scaled the wall of the clinic across the street. At this clinic stood a night watchman armed with a shotgun to deter the theft of the village’s valuable stores of medicine, and he had a history of abusing his position by shooting neighborhood cats and feeding them to his deeply-impoverished, malnourished family. This one night the watchman decided to shoot my cat James, chop its head off, skin it and feed it to his family for dinner.

Upon discovering this act the next morning, I considered myself a victim of great wrongdoing and demanded restitution. In Minianka society it was considered a greater affront than the crime itself for one to press charges with the formal law enforcement agencies, for after 80 years of Colonialism and 32 years of dictatorship this culture has nurtured a deep-seated distrust of the state. Instead, the Miniankas resolve all of their conflicts within the informal system of the chief of the village and the traditional elder council. And so I petitioned the chief of the village for a redress of my grievances. My argument came in two parts.

As for the charge of livestock theft, I based my claim on the facts that my cat was an article of livestock property and that I had paid 10,000 francs for this cat and its vaccinations. I argued that since the night watchman killed the cat and ate it, he was thereby unable to return my cat in its original form and thus he had violated my sovereign property rights. Therefore, I contended, the night watchman should pay me 10,000 francs so that I could buy and vaccinate a new cat to replace the one he had destroyed.

Moreover, I contended that the night watchman had committed reckless endangerment by discharging a Colonial-era musket mere meters from the garden where I was then sleeping in my tent. I was concerned that if he had missed my cat he might have hit me with a bullet from his highly inaccurate musket. I made the case that I would not be content with a mere financial settlement equivalent to the property that I had lost, for I was concerned that on a later date the night watchman might be perfectly content to shoot at another cat and simply pay me after the fact. Since I did not press formal criminal charges before the Commandant, I demanded that the night watchman also pay me a goat in civil damages.

In the traditional Minianka legal system the defendant is entitled to make his argument too, and in this case the defendant asserted a novel defense. The night watchman conceded that he did in fact kill my cat, but he argued that he had no choice. “Evil sorcerers cast black magic spells to curse people with sickness, and evil sorcerers can take the form of animals”, he reasoned, “and so when I saw this cat approach the clinic wall, I had no means of knowing whether or not it was an evil sorcerer disguised as a cat. Therefore, as I was afraid for my own life, I determined that I had no choice but to shoot this cat as an act of self-defense.”

The village chief found in my favor for my claim for restitution for my property, but he acquitted the night watchman under the charge of reckless endangerment; “The night watchman raises a good point; what if your cat had been an evil sorcerer?” I erred in the way that I formed my case because I articulated an entirely Western sense of justice, and I did not consider that the village chief himself was a product of a society that is sincerely afraid of witchcraft.

Despite the fact that my first experience arguing a case resulted in such a disappointing verdict, I came away more determined than ever to pursue a career in law. Knowing what it means to suffer a loss, I want to be able to defend people’s property rights in a modern court of law. Now that I know the true meaning of injustice, I want to be able to right these kinds of wrongs and make such an airtight case that not even the most partial judge could reject it.

In particular, I intend to study international law so that I can represent American citizens and firms conducting business overseas. When Americans are in foreign countries to do work, at some point they are going to have to write contracts and obtain licenses from the pertinent regulatory agencies. As I have learned from personal experience, when disputes arise with host country nationals American firms are going to need legal representation to make their case before foreign tribunals within the framework of the local laws, customs and beliefs. That is why I would like to study the principles of justice as they are codified in the laws of the United States and be able to compare them to the laws of the State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – as well as the customs of societies like the Miniankas who resolve their conflicts through informal institutions.

I want to pursue a career in law because I hope to be able to use my legal education in countries like Mali not just to protect American expatriates’ property in their beloved cats but to also protect Bambara farmers’ property in goats and Fulani pastoralists’ savings in cattle. The law must protect property rights in order to facilitate business growth and development in countries like Mali not just so that Americans can profit – but also so that people like the night watchman might be able to afford to buy more food, medicine and clothing for their families. I hope that I can use the power of the law to advance the cause of justice, because the sound practice of law should protect the rights of all property owners and foster an economy that thrives to such an extent that no family goes malnourished.

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