Remember those old Westerns we used to watch? The ones in which the tall, confident newcomer strides into town and proclaims “I’m the U.S. marshal and I’m here to bring law to this place.” The folks would gather around the stranger, some of them delighted while others grumbled something about being able to take care of themselves and not needing an outsider to keep the peace. “We’ve been doing just fine on our own,” one of them might mutter.
It’s still happening these days. Not in tiny towns that have just sprung up along the railroad tracks in the old West, but in social areas that we thought we could take care of on our own.
The family, for instance. You might have thought that the dad and mom could be entrusted to take care of their kids – something they had been doing for centuries and millennia. But there are cracks in the system. Some children are getting fed haphazardly. Others are getting punished severely by their parents – not just being spanked, but even being poked or punched. Even worse, there are rumors of dads doing nasty things to their daughters. But, hey, relax and look down the road. The U.S. marshal is advancing in full stride ready to take full control and patrol the families to make sure no abuses like these happen. The law has arrived!
How about the neighborhood? The big city is one thing – with all its thugs and criminal elements it can sure use a marshal to keep the peace. But the little community that is no bigger than half a dozen blocks. Why, the folks there could take care of themselves, wouldn’t you think? The fact is that’s just what they did for a long time, but then word got out that they were having problems. Some of the homeowners were whooping it up in the evening and making so much noise that their neighbors couldn’t sleep. Then, too, some folks were encroaching on their neighbor’s property or even taking things from them or cutting down their bushes. No need to bring in a marshal, we thought; they have enough to do just to keep the peace in the city. But, nope. There came the marshal with his shiny, bright badge.
Then there are all those other areas that we thought we could handle by ourselves without the marshal’s help. Someone says something nasty to us – “fightin’ words,” you might call ‘em. Don’t raise those fists or reach for your gun. Just call the marshal and let him know that you were the victim of hate speech. He’ll take care of the varmint who’s bothering you. Some guy who’s bigger and faster than you threatening to hurt you? Don’t worry about it. Just get on down there and tell the marshal. He’s the law, and the law doesn’t allow folks to bully one another anymore. Maybe it was different in the old days before law and order came to town, but the marshal says otherwise now. And he’s the law.
Yes, the marshal did establish the law in the more unsettled parts of the Old West. But he wasn’t around forever. Badge pinned to his vest, he introduced a system of law and order that the townsfolk might not have yet gotten used to. But then, the stranger moved on and left the town in the hands of the local folks. That would be the sheriff who could use force when he had to and even gather deputies to help him if he thought he needed help. But the sheriff could also just wander on over to the barkeeper or bank owner to have a little chat about how they might help him keep the peace in town. A good sheriff used his mouth as often as he used his gun. That’s just the way problems were solved in the old days – even in the island Pacific!
Marshals and the law they represent were supposed to build up local institutions that could maintain peace and order – or inafa'maolek, as they might say in places very far from Dodge City. They were a temporary measure until the town could take care of itself.
What about the laws that have been introduced in order to police areas we used to care for ourselves – our families and neighborhoods? Are they, like the marshals, temporary measures? Or will they be with us forever? If they are meant to stay, does this mean that the lawmakers have no confidence that we will ever be able to resume control of those areas that we long took care of ourselves? Won’t the marshal ever be leaving town?
Father Fran Hezel is a former director of the research-pastoral institute Micronesian Seminar. After serving as Jesuit mission superior in the Micronesian islands for six years, he continued heading the Micronesian Seminar until 2010.