Eastern philosophy aside, everyone felt the reverberations when, for the first time in nearly fifty years, a tree was chopped down. After less than an hour's investigation, the culprit was found: Ricky Younes, a young man who had long been thought to be at least partially crazy, a trait that had made itself apparent in his wanton destruction of life.
Every single citizen of Habitation Dome 5 loudly and gladly expressed their moral outrage at Ricky's behavior, and after filling out the appropriate and meaningless paperwork concerning arrest and crime and proper legal procedure, he was brought before the council.
Habitation Dome 5's courtroom was more of an amphitheater, surrounded with tall seating stands so that the public could watch the rulings and hearings of the council and ensure that justice was served. The austere assurance of openness served as proof enough for most people, and trials were almost always ill attended, but the heinous and shocking nature of Ricky's crime was such that the amphitheater drew crowds large enough that some people had to stand at the top, waiting for a seat to be vacated, and some of the elderly eyed differently-abled-accessible seats, asking themselves if it would be so bad to sit in that open space just until someone who was handicapped arrived.
The trial began with an announcement from the bailiff that the overseer who oversaw the trial was no better and no worse than anyone else in the amphitheater. The overseer descended from an ancient position known as "judge," and was known otherwise in modern times because an enlightened humanity had realized that nobody had the right to judge anyone else. The overseer was not in the courtroom to judge anyone, but rather to weigh the merits of the case based on her extensive knowledge of the law. Her ruling was not a judgment of a person's morality, lifestyle, or personality, but rather a necessary pronouncement to ensure the betterment of everyone, including the accused.
Next, the overseer entered and took her seat. The bailiff turned his attention to Ricky, and explained to him in laymen's terms that he was accused of intentionally chopping down a tree that was under the protection of the government of Habitation Dome 5. What was more, Ricky had ended the life of a living thing, and had caused damage to the environment. Did he understand these charges?
With a slightly arrogant twitch of the shoulders, which was not to be judged or to color anyone's opinion of him but only was an expression of his personality, Ricky answered, "Yes, I know."
According to the strictest interpretations of the law, the bailiff had to ensure that Ricky would be in no way prejudiced against during his trial, and so he pressed further, asking, "Do you understand adequate English to defend yourself?"
"Yes, I do," Rick responded with a non-incriminating roll of his eyes.
"Were you aware that what you were doing was illegal?" the bailiff continued.
"Yes, I was," Ricky responded, and unusual response as those who committed crime out of civil disobedience, the most common form of crime in Habitation Dome 5, was that a law that was illegal according to the arbitrarily selected and written laws was not as illegal as that which violated human law. An acknowledgement that a person might commit a crime for a reason other than to show the unfairness of the law was surprising, but not unheard of.
The bailiff next opened the door for the next most common defense, asking, "Did you feel that you had a choice in the matter of following this law?"
Stemming from the argument that a man or woman could not be held accountable for stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family, the law allowed for disobedience so long as the accused could provide explanation of why they'd done what they'd done. Thus, it was simply shocking when Ricky answered, "Of course I did. I just didn't follow the law."
The bailiff looked to the overseer, at a loss as to how he should continue his line of questioning when the accused didn't even make a minimal effort to defend himself. Considerably curious herself and eager to save the bailiff from a public embarrassment in his inability to question the man, the overseer began her own line of questioning. "If you didn't do it for any of those reasons," she began, "why did you chop the tree down?"
A low murmur laced through the back of the room as the people once more considered the nature of the criminal's horrible crime. Ignoring their discussion, Ricky answered simply, "Because it was there."
A long pause, in which the people considered the implications, but the statement was so outlandish that even the overseer had to admit, "I don't understand. Explain more."
Ricky shrugged, but rather than clarify, he simply sighed, "There's nothing really to explain. I saw the tree, and I wanted to chop it down. I didn't have any reason for it, I just did."
The overseer tried to remain impartial despite the anger she felt roiling just beneath the surface, and she repeated a question that had earlier been asked by the bailiff. "Do you understand the nature of your charge?" she asked, her voice low to protect Ricky from any embarrassment he might incur by admitting a lack of education. The overseer supposed Ricky could have lied earlier to avoid looking stupid in front of the assembled masses.
"Of course I do," Ricky responded. "I chopped down a tree, and that's a crime punishable by death, should I be found guilty. There are several standard defenses in our code of honor that can save an accused person from almost any charge, but I have chosen to use none of those defenses, but instead to answer your questions honestly. I chopped down the tree because it was there, and I wanted to. No other reason."
The overseer bit her lip; she didn't want to be responsible for this man's guilty verdict. Much of the reason for her appointment to her honored position in the first place had been because of her constant attempts to exonerate criminals who didn't deserve the too-harsh penalties of Habituation Dome 5's judgment system.
Like all habitation domes, her own had laws in place to maintain order, and when a person inevitably broke the law, usually motivated by a bad childhood or some sort of subconscious exclusion generated by the other dome inhabitants, the overseer did her duty in trying to find every means possible to save accused persons from an alienating stay in prison, or an ineffective corporal punishment.
"Are you sure you're not crazy?" she asked, grasping at an obvious straw to try to save Ricky from himself and his tongue.
"You know the law," Ricky responded with too much confidence. "All accused people are examined by court-appointed psychologists, so that those who are insane can be spared the stress and rigors of an actual trial. I've been examined, and found sane."
His words her true, and the overseer was unable to defend him, so she simply asked, "Why would you do what you did, then?" she demanded. Ricky opened his mouth to reply, and the overseer broke form by interrupting and asking, "I know it was there. There has to be more to it than that. You had t o know what trouble you'd get in to."
Rick flashed a mysterious smile that made the overseer and everyone else in the courtroom temporarily uncomfortable. He eased the tension by speaking after a moment, saying, "Let me explain."
"Please do," answered the overseer.
With a flourish appropriate to a story-teller, Ricky turned in a full circle, taking in everyone who watched, and explained, "Two hundred years ago, at the turn of the millennium, trees grew free from the ground, unmoderated. People still needed permission to chop trees down, but people understood that in certain circumstances, the environment could be altered for the good of the people who lived within it."
Although everything Ricky said was technically true, the spin with which he presented the errors of the past was offensive to many of those gathered. A low rumble of annoyance bubbled through those assembled, and the bailiff frowned. The overseer banged her historic gavel to quite the assembled, then waved toward Ricky that he should continue.
Aware of the concerns of those assembled, Ricky continued, "We know that there were many errors in those days. After all, before the world was made aware of the necessity for peace and love of their earth, wars were waged in countless countries simultaneously, global warming threatened to destroy the environment, murder and rape were so common place the news couldn't even report on everything, and people who didn't fit in with the majority were berated for who they were."
Knowing nods, people could support this opinion, it fit so well with what everyone had been taught, and with what they all believed. Everyone knew the old days were vile and immoral, which was how the world had been able to turn its back on the evil of the past and evolve into what they were today.
Ricky continued, "The hatred and violence culminated in world war once, when the powers of the world rose against each other in a contest for dominance, then again, when racism and bigotry permitted the greatest genocide in history to take place before the world intervened to end it. Finally, the third world war escalated to nuclear warfare, and the world's atmosphere dissolved far more quickly than it would have under global warming.
"That's why we built our habitation domes. Because we couldn't travel safely over the world or grow crops on large plots of land, or make war on one another for goods we didn't have, we were forced to learn how to co-operate within our small communities to survive. Thus, through the use of communication technology, the leaders within each dome agreed on a new way of life based on peace, love, and respect for one another and our environment."
The overseer opened her mouth to complain that they didn't all need a history lesson, but her own interruption was interrupted by the smattering of applause from those assembled. Everyone had been indoctrinated by the grand story of their history ever since they'd started school, and almost everyone loved their proud culture and history. Those who didn't knew they were entitled to a world where they could speak their minds and protest without fear of retribution.
"You should get to the point," the overseer suggested when she had the opportunity to speak, adding, "Not that I'm trying to infringe on your fair trial by cutting off your testimony, but what you've said thus far is entirely irrelevant."
"Trust me, it's important," Ricky responded. "You see, I love our ideals. I think it's wonderful that we fought for free speech and peace, but somehow, something got lost. I don't know how it happened, exactly, but I can guess. Somewhere along the way, someone had to ask which was more important: peace or freedom. After all, a person might wish to act freely in a way that would upset the peace. Or what about love versus respect for the environment? What if you want to show your love for someone by picking a bouquet of flowers? That doesn't hurt the environment too much, but what about when you want to chop down a tree to build a home for your lover, or write her name in the sky, or the roof of the dome, rather, with aerosol paint?"
"That is why we have the rule of law," the overseer explained, trying to predict where Ricky would go with his monologue.
"Exactly!" cried Ricky with an emphatic point in the air to undercut his excitement at her ability to foresee what he meant to say. "That's where the problem lies."
"Law is important," the overseer growled. "It helps us to determine how to live our lives in the most mutually beneficial way for all the people of a community. Of course, the law isn't everything. The rights of the individuals are more important than anything else we could instate from above."
With a sneer, Ricky laughed, as though the overseer had said something funny. "That's a nice idea of law," he offered. "Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. It never does. It's impossible to have a set of laws that are fair to everyone and don't infringe on anyone's rights. Let's face it; the laws define our idea of what a person's rights should and should not be, and they can't even be internally consistent as to how we should exercise them. They're a joke!"
For the first time, the overseer feared that she might allow her personal opinions and feelings to stand in the way of her ability to judge the case fairly and unbiased. His cocky attitude and flip dismissal of everything they held dear grated on her nerves, and made her tempted to find him guilty of the harshest penalty to which she could, legally. Of course, the overseer had always been very aware of the rights she was meant to uphold and of the oath she'd sworn when she'd been elected to her position, she made further efforts to find the man not guilty.
"Are you an anarchist?" she asked. "That's OK, according to the law. You're allowed to voice whatever dissenting opinion you like, so long as you do so in a way that is not destructive to anyone else or their property. If you feel you can't be true to your beliefs and remain within the context of the law, there are areas of the dome to which you can be relegated."
"Prison terms and segregation!" hissed Ricky in response. "That's the problem with the whole system. We have these ideas of free speech and prosperity, but we also had to have a society, so we cast those ideas aside. I'm not an anarchist, but I believe in the truth, and that's one thing we lack in our society. By trying to appeal to everyone's sense of right and wrong, we've completely hidden the fact that we live in as relegated and oppressive a society as we ever have. By filling our law codes with indications of a person's necessity to have their freedoms upheld at all costs, we've disguised the rule of law and our complex system of mores and societal constructs that aren't necessarily any more liberating than any others at any other time."
"Then why are people so happy?" the overseer demanded.
"Because they don't realize what trouble we're in," Ricky retorted. "We hide it all, and I guess our policies are as progressive as any society's have ever been. That's good and all, except that we've all fooled ourselves into believing we're perfect, and that's when our world stagnated."
"An interesting philosophy," the overseer mused, seeking to change the course of the conversation before she would become too annoyed and say something that she might later regret. She even had the perfect diversionary phrase. "You still haven't told us what that has to do with your crime, though," she complained.
"If it doesn't seem obvious to you, maybe you should listen more carefully to what I'm saying," Ricky snapped back. "I chopped down the tree because it was there. I don't particularly enjoy chopping down trees, I didn't want to destroy a living thing, but nobody else has tried to chop down a tree for decades. Everyone is too brainwashed into believing that by loving our environment and acting the same way, we're doing something good for society, and I wanted people to think differently."
"So you are committing your crime as a form of civil disobedience," the overseer inferred, fighting the urge to roll her eyes. If he'd only admitted such from the beginning, instead of wasting time with his speeches and criticisms, she could have acquitted him already.
"No," Ricky answered.
"But you just said you chopped down the tree in order to make people rethink their opinions of the law," replied the overseer. "Don't you consider that civil disobedience?"
"It could be considered as such, according to most people's definitions," Ricky admitted, I don't want it to be defined as such, though."
"Don't you understand?" the overseer demanded, now pleading. "If you simply claim civil disobedience, you'll be found not-guilty. That's the beauty of our system that you're trying to oppose. We love our people, and our rights, and the government is so protective of your rights that you can break the law to express your rights and still incur no penalty."
"That's exactly what I'm protesting against," Ricky reminded her. "How many accused to find innocent because they say they were protesting the law, even though you can tell sometimes that they're just using that as an excuse? And how many of those laws really even matter, when you get right down to it? I'm not protesting our ideals, I just want to make people think more realistically about the system in which we live."
"I don't understand why it's not civil disobedience, then," the overseer complained.
"Only because I don't want it to be," Ricky assured her. "I don't want to be acquitted and forgotten, because I'm opposing the very system that wants to acquit me."
This self-destructive argumentative form was all that the overseer could handle, and with a clap of her gavel to signify the end of testimony, she proclaimed, "I must deliberate." The phrase wasn't the official sentence used to deliberate, but so many years had passed since a overseer had needed time to consider the merits of the case that the overseer forgot the right words.
She left a murmur of surprise amongst the spectators as the overseer retired to a back room. While she hated to admit it, the overseer had to acknowledge that Ricky was correct to say that a good many of the accused were let free, even those that the overseer secretly believed to be guilty, although she'd never admit such suspicions to anyone else. The law saved the accused from guilty sentences so effectively, the overseer had never in her career needed to consider before releasing one of the accused.
In the sparse back room, the overseer sat in an uncomfortable plastic chair and tapped her fingers against a table-top as she considered. Ricky was wrong; clearly, he was impossibly wrong. Honestly, with his wanton criminality (chopping down a tree! Unthinkable) he couldn't honestly expect to survive in any society that didn't take for granted the liberal freedoms inherent to their own society.
Of course, the overseer couldn't find him guilty, either. Even though Ricky had resisted every defense, if the overseer found him guilty, she would be the first to do so for any of the accused in over a century. She didn't want to be remembered in history as the unfair, cruel judge to actually find an accused man guilty for a crime he'd committed, even if he wouldn't fall-back on the civil disobedience defense.
Then, of course, there was the concern that he might become a martyr. Although the overseer found Ricky's beliefs too extreme to probably gain a lot of support, one never knew how people would react, particularly if he was the first guilty ruling in memory. Earth-shattering decisions like the one the overseer saw before her tended to produce unexpected results.
Worst of all, she didn't see what other options she had. Ricky had resisted every effort on anyone's part to find him not-guilty. Clearly he wanted to be the martyr the overseer feared. As she reflected on the case, however, the overseer saw her way out.
While Ricky had confessed to chopping down the tree, no proof had been offered to show that he had been the one to do it. Everyone knew, but legally, the overseer could say she suspected him of lying. The interpretation of the law was a bit loose, but looser interpretations had been made to make other accused seem innocent.
Best of all, although the overseer hated to admit it, she suspected that her sentence would punish Ricky more than the death penalty could. If he really didn't want to live in their peaceful society, he'd hate nothing more than a non-guilty sentence.