Common (lack of) sense

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

An item from the “be careful what you wish for” department: I was having a problem coming up with a topic for this month’s column. I was praying for some inspiration.

Then I glanced at the day’s news in the paper, and oh, was I sorry! While it provided a nearly instant topic, it also made my blood boil, not once, but three times.

Here, in a nutshell, are the first three items I read in that mid-September Washington Post.

Story #1: A set of articles described how the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue imposes liens on the homes of residents who have not paid their property taxes, then auctions those liens off to the highest bidders. The bidders, in turn, may impose additional fees and interest to the point where they may legally foreclose on the property, evicting the residents and their possessions, and taking ownership of the home.

None of this is illegal, and in fact, the city relies on individual investors and businesses to collect and pay such back taxes.

But the story identified a number of cases where homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were taken from their owners over a property tax bill as low as $50! Many of the victims of this scurrilous behavior have been older adults who either thought they had paid their tax, didn’t understand the consequences of not paying the tax, or were suffering from dementia or other disabilities.

Eventually, a couple of the investors who bought and foreclosed in these egregious cases were charged with a crime — not for taking homes away from people, but for colluding at the auctions. Apparently, they “took turns” allowing each other to be the highest bidder on every other property, and that broke the rules.

[Fortunately, shortly after those stories appeared, it was announced that the government’s policies would change, pronto.]

Story #2: This one came from Pine Bluff, Ark., and concerned a 107-year-old man whose granddaughter and a friend had come to help him move to a new home. Apparently, the gentleman mistook the ladies for burglars, brandished a pistol, and told them, “You better stop breaking into my house.”

They left and called police for assistance, and when the man shot at officers through the door, they threw tear gas and a “distraction device” into the house, then stormed inside, guns drawn. When he fired at them, they shot back and killed the 107-year-old.

Story #3: This one took place in Maryland. A middle-aged daughter was the caregiver for her elderly parents. Her father had suffered three strokes and could no longer do many things for himself.

The daughter claims he told her repeatedly that he wanted to die, and that he refused the food she brought him. When she finally called 911 to come take his body away, they found an emaciated corpse with more than a dozen open sores, five so deep “that bones were exposed.”

Investigation revealed that in the months leading up to her father’s death, his doctors and nurses had reported him looking increasingly unkempt. When social workers came to the home to assist, the daughter turned them away.

The judge, who found evidence in the record that the daughter was “an otherwise very fine person,” sentenced her to one year in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

The situations are different, the motivations are different, the consequences are different, but to me, all three of these cases have some things in common.

I’m going to call them the five (lack of) senses: Lack of common sense, lack of a sense of decency, lack of a sense of proportion, lack of a sense of fairness, lack of a sense of shame.

Maybe we aren’t born with a moral compass, and no doubt many people grow up without either being taught morality or coming to their own sense of right and wrong through experience.

And certainly there are criminals in every town and every society, as well as sociopaths who prey on innocents.

But the situations above are not necessarily, or not wholly, examples of immoral or illegal behavior.

It’s something else that leads otherwise decent people to make a living acquiring property at pennies on the dollar by “following the rules”; that sometimes leads law enforcement officers to shoot before they understand the situation; that leads children to think they are “honoring their parents’ wishes” when they withhold care or neglect them.

Of course, each of these stories made it into the paper precisely because most of us find them outrageous. It is implied in their very reporting that such behaviors are antithetical to our social norms. That’s the good news part of the bad news.

But don’t most of us desire to, or actually, act in some of these ways some of the time? Do we allow ourselves to benefit at others’ expense as long as the others are not visible to us? Do we overreact or jump to conclusions before fully assessing a situation? Do we persuade ourselves we are acting as others have asked, or would want, without truly putting ourselves in their shoes?

There’s something very close to “human nature” reflected in these attitudes. Nearly all of us look out for “number one” first and foremost.

But there’s also something redeeming about human nature, in that we can see — in others, at least — how dark and dangerous a person’s thoughts and actions can be. Perhaps it’s time we turned the spotlight more on ourselves.