Texting, immigration and the power of law

The statewide ban on texting while driving, signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley, is a good law that will probably save lives.
The reason the law will have an impact is also the reason the state’s immigration law was a mistake.
Opponents of the texting-while-driving law make a legitimate argument: the law is unenforceable. Decatur already has such a ban, and it has been of little use to police.
The significance of a law, though, is not limited to its enforceability.
Many people respect laws as part of a code of moral conduct, a boundary that defines civilized behavior. “Because it’s the law” is not just what our parents told us, but what we tell our children and what we hope they will tell theirs.
The law is a compact between the individuals in a society. Good laws are consistent with, if not always identical to, unwritten moral codes.
In a democracy, laws are not external limitations but self-imposed rules of social conduct.
Respect for the law, as a social code, is what gives the texting ban significance beyond its enforceability.
Civil rights laws were not well received in Alabama, but they affected both behavior and attitude. It has taken years, but gradually a moral code that incorporated a sense of white superiority has given way to a recognition that blacks are equal and have a right to equal treatment. The law’s impact in that ongoing social transition is not just a function of its enforceability.
Unfortunately, bad laws also command respect.
For all its proponents’ protestations, everyone in Alabama understands that the state’s immigration law codifies discrimination against Hispanics. The “reasonable suspicion” that requires a police officer to check citizenship status cannot be understood without reference to skin color and accent.
The result of the law has been dramatic. Those who chafed under laws that prohibited discrimination feel vindicated. The state immigration law, unlike the federal one, condones their prejudices.
A less obvious result of the immigration law is that it erodes at the respect afforded all laws. The immigration law is in direct conflict with the ethical code of many Alabamians. Whether or not they follow the law, they have lost some of the reverence they once held for the law as a moral template defining civilized interaction.
Lawmakers have power that goes beyond the enforceability of their mandates. The texting ban is an example of their use of that power for the public good. The immigration law is not.



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Filed under Alabama politics, immigration

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