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Lorraine Henderson, Boston area port director for the Department of Homeland Security, was arrested on Dec. 6 for hiring illegal immigrants to clean her house. She might get jail time for what she thought was an act of kindness. Every newspaper and cable news show screams, “She’s supposed to deport aliens, not hire them!”

We call ourselves a nation of laws. For the most part we are, and thank God for it. Yet one of our highest legal ideals, though we sometimes lose sight of it, is allegorically represented on the east pediment of the United States Supreme Court building — “Justice tempered by mercy.” But what does this really mean, and what are the implications of such words during these difficult days?

Max Rameau, a computer consultant in Miami, spends his free time helping homeless people locate and break into vacant, foreclosed houses, not to steal but to live in them. He breaks more laws than one can shake a stick at, but the city so far is turning a benign blind eye.

Would we steal to feed our children? Of course we would. But would we steal to feed our neighbor’s children? And what about the man standing at the Alewife intersection with a cardboard sign that reads “Will work for food”? Would we steal to feed his children? Would we steal to feed any of the other 522,000 people in Massachusetts who are hungry or “food-insecure”?

Across America, cancer patients tend basement gardens of marijuana, risking arrest and prosecution to relieve their pain and nausea. The rest of us are divided on whether this ought to be allowed. As of today however, in the eyes of the law these cancer sufferers are criminals.

There are currently about 1,300,000 people locked up in American jails. Almost 80 percent of them are black or Hispanic. A walk down Tremont Street will verify that the racial statistics of homelessness and poverty cannot be very different. We may examine any individual case and say a man is justly put away for his crimes, but when doing time is four times more likely for young black and Hispanic men than for young white men, can we really say that justice is being served?

John and Jennifer Davis were trying to get to the hospital in a hurry because Jennifer’s contractions were three minutes apart. Traffic was at a standstill on Route 2 so they stopped to ask a state trooper if they could continue using the breakdown lane. Two troopers had already given their assent, but this third guy wrote them a $100 ticket. The state police maintain the trooper acted appropriately.

An attractive young white couple runs afoul of the law, and we are outraged. Of the state trooper in question, now every newspaper and cable news show screams, “What a jerk!” But when a man breaks into a house, or steals, or grows marijuana in his basement, and he is black, or Hispanic, or homeless, or hungry, or sick, we say that the law is the law.

Our laws must be rigorously enforced. Our homes and families require protection. But what do we do when situations arise, which they regularly do, when the law seems at odds with mercy? Are law and mercy always inimical, requiring a constant balance of one against the other? Or are they concomitant parts of what we call justice, one not possible without the other? If so, is a consistent policy discoverable, to tell where to draw the line?

It seems evil days are ahead for America. Poverty, hunger, unemployment and homelessness are on the rise. Law and liberality are destined to be more often in apparent opposition. Our character as a people will be tested in many ways. How well we temper justice with mercy will be one of them.

Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife. He has three adult children. Chris welcomes reader feedback at cmills@gis.net.

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