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Compassion and law

We are condemned to face and decide the same moral crossroads over and over again. While this happens, we get up every morning and look in the mirror.

Are we capable of holding our gaze? Would we make the same decisions that brought us where we are today?

The Greeks created myths to help us face that mirror every morning. These stories reflect dilemmas that helped them remember that with each decision, one can degrade oneself or dare to live a dignified life. The myth that best helps us understand this is the myth of Antigone.

Creon, the king of Thebes, forbids, on pain of death, to bury the body of Polynices, Antigone’s brother, who was defeated when he besieged the city. Antigone then faces this dilemma: obey the king’s law, who wants her brother’s body to be devoured by vultures, or be faithful to her sisterly duty and give her brother a proper burial. Then, in Antigone’s decision, many things were decided: who she was, the values she had inherited from her parents, the expectations of her fellow citizens upon her, but above all, her ability to look at herself every day and live with the decision she had made. Should she obey the king’s law or the law of her blood? How far would she be willing to go to be true to herself?

This dilemma may seem distant and abstract, but it is not. The actuality of this story is very close to us. Last night, I saw the face of Antigone reflected in the face of a young man named Seán Binder.

Seán, a professional swimmer trained as a rescuer, travelled from Ireland to Greece in 2017 to join the NGO ERCI (Emergency Response Center International). The ERCI specializes in helping people who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea in precarious boats, giving them medical attention, food and blankets. As we sadly know, many of these migrants and refugees drown every day on the shores of Greece or Italy, while others are rescued thanks to the work of humanitarian workers like Sean.

After a year of working side by side with the police and other European agencies, Seán and other volunteers were arrested, imprisoned and accused of espionage and human trafficking. Binder was arrested at dawn and kept with ordinary prisoners; he passed through detention centres without knowing what he was charged for or having access to a defence. After spending five years in Greece tied to a dubious, cumbersome and costly legal process, the charges against Binder were mostly dropped yesterday.

Yesterday, after the trial, he was interviewed. The young man was moved when the journalist asked if he felt he had lost part of his life after these years of legal battles and prison. Then, the journalist asked him if he would do it again, helping to rescue migrants and offering support. Binder peered into the television camera and, without hesitation, replied, “Yes.”

The faces of Antigone and Binder look at us from the other side of the mirror and ask us: Where does our compassion begin? How far are we willing to go to put it into practice? Where do the laws end?

We must answer for ourselves and our responsibility to one another.

Photo Sebastian silva







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