In 2001, I graduated from The Citadel and went directly to pursue my Masters in International Relations at The American University in Washington, D.C. There, I met Dr. Clovis Maksoud, a former Ambassador of the Arab League in the United Nations. In one of the courses I took with him, he said something that till this day continues to ring in my ears. He said, “What is Legitimate should be Legal, and what is Legal should be legitimate.”
For 11 years, I cannot stop thinking about this statement. It has inspired me a lot and in many different ways, where sometimes I feel like wanting to write a book on it. Today, I will only write about one of the many factors which I consider a phenomenon that branches out of this statement. A phenomenon that we face in courts today when lawyers and judges refer to the legal formal system rather than to the legitimate informal system.
Imagine yourself standing in front of a judge being faced with a law suit that could change the direction of your life forever. This law suit against you doesn’t make sense to you, but somehow, legally, you’ve broken the law. Perhaps you were faced in a situation where you needed to break the law for a good reason, to save someone. The judge has no other option but to punish you because you’ve broken the law, how bad is that? Now imagine if the judge surprises you and sets you free, because the law simply doesn’t make sense for this specific case. This is excellent but it would almost never happen. Let’s see why it wouldn’t and why we should work to change it.
In today’s world, people live under rules and regulations, which constrain us from doing whatever we want or feel like doing. The law draws circles around us and give us the opportunity to act within those circles without surpassing the drawn limits. There is not just one circle, but many of them in different sizes in any one society. In journalism, there are circle the define the area you can work in. In the civil life, there are circles that give you certain rights, and in the financial sector, where money is traded, limits are also carefully designed.
To structure and administer a society, government create bodies that monitors those circles, as well as other bodies that deter people from violating the confined area. Police, public prosecution, and the court system are all bodies tasked differently in this perspective. They go by standard procedures, if ‘X’ happens, then we should be doing ‘Y’. Very easy and right to the point.
The job however does get complicated with time, and it only does when cases or violations are legitimate, or when non-violations happen but the cases are illegitimate. Let’s take two examples to explain. First, when a person without a driver’s license drives a sick friend to the hospital. Second, when a problem maker does not actually break any law, do you not stop him?
Because we have built our society on a legal foundation, we find ourselves always referring back to the legality of issues, rather than their legitimacy. Yes it is functional to live under certain set of rules familiar to us all, but we shouldn’t forget that the legal foundation was actually built on common sense, some time ago. Thus, we need to recognize the significance of having the legal foundation always relying on common sense.
A better society and a better life for us all is one that has a structure dependant on the legitimacy of issues, when they are raised. Common sense is for all times and places, while structured laws and regulations are not, and we find ourselves amending them for different times and places. What we should do now is make sure we move towards a world that legitimacy supersedes legality, that should be 101 common sense.