Shakir Hamoodi and the meaning of justice

Many local readers will have already heard the latest news regarding World Harvest and its owner. This is another case, like the recent raw milk story, where we don’t really have time to get involved yet feel very strongly about standing up for personal freedom against overzealous authority. Thus, I present some thoughts in the following post on a situation I find very unfortunate, and hope can be remedied before further harm is done.

World Harvest Foods is a wonderful store in south Columbia. Run by Shakir Hamoodi and his family, it has a fantastic variety of interesting and high quality groceries and staples, including an especially impressive selection of world cheeses. It’s one of our favorite places to shop for the few things we don’t produce, like very good olive oil, balsamic vinegar, English teas, and all the cheese we can justify as research expenses.

I’ve gotten to know Shakir a little over the years; he’s a very friendly man and a good businessperson, always interested in his customers and ready with a gentle smile and advice. Despite my irregular visits, he began to remember me and ask more about us, becoming very interested in our farm and our way of life. For the last few years I flatter myself that I’ve received an extra-friendly greeting when I walk in, and always take the time to chat and ask about his family and business.

We’ve talked about fresh produce sales in the past, but his experience has been that he can’t easily move vegetables (“all my customers go to the farmers market”), and so has kept to his core model of durable goods. When he learned about our farm’s planned transition to CSA last fall, he was especially interested in the process, and immediately asked if he could host a distribution/drop-off site on his own initiative, using his large walk-in cooler to store bags of produce for customers who wanted to pick up shares there rather than home delivery. We were thrilled to take him up on it as a way to serve south Columbia and extend our reach to families potentially beyond our delivery zone, and as a way to interact with and support a store and a person we really like and respect. Whenever I thank him for his interest and support, he invariably gives his typical quiet shrug and said something like “it’s a good thing for everyone and I am happy to help”.

So far, this is pretty much the post I’ve been writing in my head for a while now, simply a nice review of a good store and a good man whom we wanted to highlight and thank. Then, Thursday, we learned this:

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Shakir Hamoodi has been sentenced to Federal prison for three years for “conspiring” to send money to support friends and family left behind in Iraq, including his mother, against US sanctions. It’s unclear what his family and business will do in the meantime.

The outrage, disgust, and depression we feel over this news seems to be shared by many, and I’ve deleted most of my initial brain dump of vitriolic froth as redundant and unoriginal. My thoughts, also posted in the comment thread here, can be summarized as:

The cost to society of taking a successful businessman and valuable citizen, and turning him into an expensive ward of the state along with the murderers and rapists, far outweighs whatever harm he might have done in attempting to help his family survive a murderous dictator. His actions, while illegal, harmed no one and cost society nothing. Fine him, give him probation, find some way of balancing his crime that doesn’t do far more harm than the original sin.

Anyone who’s read this blog for long knows that we’re generally sticklers for law and order, going out of our way to understand and comply with all applicable laws, including the absurdly complicated tax system which is almost the definition of entrapment. Yet this is another instance in our growing realization of how dangerous the law can be, as much as we respect and honor it, when poorly written or harsh or obscure laws can force otherwise good people into “criminal” activity that most rational people would accept as reasonable or moral in context. This was a core frustration of ours with the pig feeding situation, or with persecution of raw milk farms, or with complicated labor laws that can entrap a small farm trying to survive with interns or volunteer labor.

What’s happening to the Hamoodis is a classic example of laws, and especially enforcement mechanisms, whose unintended consequences are worse than the damage they’re trying to prevent. Can our society and legal system really not account for the difference between a money launderer aiding a dictator and an honest man trying to support his family from abroad? It makes us very concerned for our own futures when we have so much to lose from a single mistake or judgment call in the eyes of the often-flawed law. Imprisonment is a harsh and expensive punishment for someone who has done no actual harm and poses no threat to society.

I went down to World Harvest Friday afternoon, hoping in a perhaps selfish way to see and talk with Shakir, to share my frustration and disgust, and to ask about/offer any help we or others could provide. Apparently there was a larger meeting of supporters that afternoon elsewhere, but I didn’t hear of it in time and don’t know what was discussed or decided. He came out of the back room with a handshake and hug for me, and a bigger smile than I deserved given the circumstances. We talked for a bit, along with his wife and several sons, and with his permission and apologies for an imperfect memory I’ll attempt to paraphrase a bit of what passed.

I told him how sad and frustrated we were that this was happening, and that it wasn’t the way I felt this country was supposed to work. His wife interjected, “Yes, that’s why we came here”. He was sad and frustrated, noting that “they say the prisons are already too full, yet they have room for me? I am at the peak of my life here, and they will take it all away?” He saw his actions through the eyes of family morals, asking how he could have done anything but support his mother and other family back in Iraq, as so many expatriates from around the world do. “Who could tell me not to support my own mother, no matter where she was?” He didn’t see the sentence coming, as it’s been years since the last hearing and he & his lawyer thought the situation was under control, so it “came out of nowhere”. I told them all that as far as I, and many others I knew, were concerned they would always be welcome and valued in our community and we hoped they’d always be a part of our lives, regardless of the letter of the law.

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In closing, I’m going to share one of my favorite passages (edited slightly for clarity) from one of my favorite authors, offering a different and thought-provoking take on the famous New Testament passage in which Jesus defends an adulterous woman (John 7:53-8:11; “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”). This is offered in a philosophical, rather than religious, context:

A Great Rabbi stands, teaching in the marketplace. It happens that a husband finds proof that morning of his wife’s adultery, and a mob carries her to the marketplace to stone her to death.

There is a familiar version of this story, but a friend of mine has told me of two other Rabbis that faced the same situation. Those are the ones I’m going to tell you.

The Rabbi walks forward and stands beside the woman. Out of respect for him the mob forbears and waits with the stones heavy in their hands. ‘Is there any man here,’ he says to them, ‘who has not desired another man’s wife, another woman’s husband?’
They murmur and say, ‘We all know the desire, but Rabbi none of us has acted on it.’

The Rabbi says, ‘Then kneel down and give thanks that God has made you strong.’ He takes the woman by the hand and leads her out of the market. Just before he lets her go, he whispers to her, ‘Tell the Lord Magistrate who saved his mistress, then he’ll know I am his loyal servant.’

So the woman lives because the community is too corrupt to protect itself from disorder.

 

Another Rabbi. Another city. He goes to her and stops the mob as in the other story and says, ‘Which of you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone.’

The people are abashed, and they forget their unity of purpose in the memory of their own individual sins. ‘Someday,’ they think, ‘I may be like this woman. And I’ll hope for forgiveness and another chance. I should treat her as I wish to be treated.’

As they opened their hands and let their stones fall to the ground, the Rabbi picks up one of the fallen stones, lifts it high over the woman’s head and throws it straight down with all his might it crushes her skull and dashes her brain among the cobblestones. ‘Nor am I without sins,’ he says to the people, ‘but if we allow only perfect people to enforce the law, the law will soon be dead – and our city with it.’

So the woman died because her community was too rigid to endure her deviance.

The famous version of this story is noteworthy because it is so startlingly rare in our experience. Most communities lurch between decay and rigor mortis and when they veer too far they die. Only one Rabbi dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation.

So of course, we killed him.

(Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead)

It seems to me that our society could find better ways of balancing punishment with the greater good. I’ve always found this passage inspiring.

We’ll be writing to all the important and influential people we can think of, asking questions and seeking ways to change this situation for the better. That’s all I know of to do, for now.

NOTE 5/26/12: We’re closing comments on this post, as too many have had to be blocked for being too off-topic and/or overly politicized (from both directions). It’s not worth our time to moderate.

4 thoughts on “Shakir Hamoodi and the meaning of justice

  1. Thanks for your posting this morning. It.says what I think many of are thinking. I shared this on twitter and facebook – thanks.

  2. The war that our country started in Iraq was illegal. Hamoodi is not guilty of any crime. The original crime was ours. There is no punishment that can be justified. The admission that we should not have done what we did in Iraq is the missing link.

  3. Steven,

    I respectfully disagree, in that I don’t think the foreign affairs issue has enough to do with the core issue at hand. First, according to the Tribune, Hamoodi sent money to family from 1991-2003, mostly if not entirely before the war you’re referring to (or are you arguing that the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait was illegal? There we really part ways). Second, regardless of what you think of the second Iraq war, this is solely an issue of an individual’s actions and specific US law; you’re on very shaky ground arguing that we can nullify internal laws based on foreign policy. Would you support an equivalent argument from the right that it is no crime to break health care laws because ObamaCare is unconstitutional?

    Please don’t damage the cause of helping the Hamoodis by losing focus and drawing in older and tangential political arguments. The fact that he is Iraqi should be tangential, in that it should be the same concern if we were discussing, say, a Christian who sent money to family in Cuba. The issue here is not the crime, which happened and was a crime, but the punishment, which is overly harsh and economically & socially harmful. That’s an argument that people of many political persuasions can understand and support; dragging old partisanship into this doesn’t help and tarnishes the appeal.