Imperfect though it may be, all we have is the law

In the end, all we have is the law. It is not perfect, even though we dress up our judges in robes as if they are oracles from God. Nevertheless, it is all we have.

Without law, we become nothing more than savages, killing, stealing, hurting each other on any little impulse. Instead, we create laws not just so we can punish offenders, but to help all of us understand the rules of a civilized society.

The law is based in facts and acting reasonably. That’s because as a species most of us are capable of understanding the former and doing the latter.

But the law is not perfect because we are also governed by our emotions, which tell us who or what to love, hate, fear, etc. For our species to survive and thrive through the millennia, we have needed both, but it is because of our ability for complex thinking and understanding the concept of reasonableness that we have come to dominate this small planet.

Now our community has been ripped apart by an event so awful, it is almost beyond comprehension. Two lives lost and one life ruined because all three ignored the law.

We are certain that the families of Nick Brady and Haile Kifer want to grab their children by the shoulders and ask, “What were you thinking?” “Do you not know that burglarizing is wrong?”

But they cannot. They can only mourn their premature passing and wonder about all the what-ifs and might-have-beens.

If one believes in the redemptive spirit, that all of us are imperfect but have the capability of overcoming our wrong turns in life, then one ought to believe that, right up until the bullets started flying, those two young people still had a chance to turn their lives around.

However, their lives intersected with that of Byron Smith, a man who had a career protecting our nation’s interests, working for the U.S. State Department, then returned to his hometown hoping for a quiet retirement.

At first, it worked out as he expected. But then, he became a burglary victim — repeatedly. In October 2012, he lost more than $10,000 worth of property, including guns, when his home was ransacked by burglars.

That pushed him over the edge. A month later, on Thanksgiving Day 2012, he was consumed by fear. Emotion had overtaken reason. He felt so unsafe, he was wearing a gun around his own home.

Only those who have had their homes invaded by others can fully understand the sense of violation that he felt, can understand the fear coursing through him.

As a species we are good at second-guessing. From football coaches to politicians, we use others to play shoulda, woulda, coulda games. In hindsight, we pretend we know what Smith should have done.

He should have gotten help. He should have contacted law enforcement after every burglary, not just the big one in October. As an expert in building security, he should have been able to secure the premises. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Instead, he came up with a plan that looked like and some have called a “trap.” But is it a “trap” to come up with a way to protect your own home? Are any of us “luring” in burglars if we leave our homes unattended?

It seems obvious that someone was paying excessive attention to Smith’s comings and goings. The same “reasonable” standard used against Smith tells us that, if it took little more than a hour from the time the “trap” was set until it snared two victims, that something very bad and very wrong was in play. Some amount of fear was justified.

But all we have is the law. Judges have tried repeatedly to tell us where the line is drawn. You can defend your home and your property, but that can be your only motivation. If your primary goal is to kill the perpetrators, then you have gone too far.

The cynics among us will say with some truth that Smith could have gotten away with it if he had not confessed to law enforcement without a lawyer present and had he not made and kept an audio tape of the shootings.

But the justice that we seek through law is not about getting away with something. It is about discovering the truth. And what the tapes revealed were that he had become a deeply disturbed man, alternating between fear and rage over what was happening to him, coupled with a belief that law enforcement could not protect him.

Indeed, short of posting an armed guard on his home 24/7, what was law enforcement to do? Second-guessers may say they should have tried harder to solve the October break-in, but we all know it’s not that easy.

Thus, Smith took the law into his own hands. The facts (meaning the tapes) tell us that his sense of reasonableness had disappeared.

As with almost every first-degree murder conviction, Smith’s will be appealed. We encourage the Minnesota Supreme Court to take a close look to determine if the judge excluded too much of the defense’s case. But the conviction and the outcome of the appeal will change little. We feel only unspeakable sadness for the families of Brady and Kifer and for Smith — indeed, for our entire community that has had to live through this.

Fear in the community remains palpable. Last week, Sheriff Michel Wetzel reported a 27 percent increase in residential burglaries in 2013. People wonder if the conviction will embolden other burglars.

The only message for all of us to remember here is that, imperfect though it may be, all we have is the law. We won’t remain a civilized society without it.