A Thin Blue Line

A Thin Blue Line

Jan 16, 2019

By: Rabbi Steven Schwartz

The 1988 documentary film ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ investigates the mistaken murder conviction of Randall Adams for the killing of police officer Robert Wood.  The events of the film took place in Dallas, Texas, in the fall of 1976.  The title of the movie is taken from a phrase the prosecutor uses in his closing argument at Adams’ trial – the police, in essence, form a ‘thin blue line’ that separates an ordered society from anarchy.

I would argue there are other ‘thin lines’ of varying colors that serve the same purpose.  The rule of law, the democratic system, honesty in voting, decorum in public discourse, honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility, just to name a few.  These ideals, each in their own way, form a thin line between ordered society and anarchy.  We might throw in the separation of church and state as well.  At different times one or the other of these lines might strain, even crack, but if the others maintain their integrity the line – the big one that separates us from a total breakdown – holds.

Some might say those lines are being stretched and stressed as they never have before.  So it was heartening this week to see that there are still some lines that cannot be crossed; there are still some standards that are held as inviolable, even in Washington D.C.  If you’ve followed the news, you know that, in an interview with the New York Times, Representative Steve King of Iowa went on the record as stating: "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”  

King has a long history of making questionable, if not outright racist remarks about immigrants and minorities, and the fact that he occupies a seat in the House is troubling enough in and of itself.  But this last statement was beyond the pale, and politicians from both sides of the aisle condemned King.  King was stripped of his committee responsibilities, and the House overwhelmingly voted to pass a resolution condemning his comments.

The line still holds.  At least it does today.

There is a concept in Judaism, ‘one should be killed, and not violate.’  The idea is that certain commandments are so central one must not violate them even upon pain of death.  The tradition specifies three commandments that fall into this category:  sexual sins, the spilling of blood, and worshipping idols.  The idea seems to be that the violation of said commandments so thoroughly corrupts the sinner that he or she becomes irredeemable.  In other words, the sinner crosses an inviolable line, and once they’ve crossed it, there is no way back.  Better to die knowing what you are and what you stand for than to be lost, both to yourself and to your culture and society.

What are we, and what do we stand for?  In part, we answer those questions by the ‘thin lines’ we draw and how we protect them. Steve King found out that at least one of those lines still holds.  What about the others?  Do they still hold?  And if so, do we have the will and the strength to make sure they do not break?