The Trial is one of Franz Kafka's great novels. It is the story of one Joseph K. who wakes up one morning accused of a crime he did not commit by a system he does not understand. The more he fights for his case the less understandable it becomes and by the end of the book he is executed for a crime that probably does not exist.
It's very depressing reading, as are all Kafka's books. But therein lies their fascination: they thoroughly capture the fears we all have about the world gone deranged, about a world we can't understand and in which anonymous others hold all power. At the end of the book we have the consolation that the real world isn't quite that bad, that it was all just a story.
Or was it? Consider this little piece of news from the United States of America in the year 2005 (via Washington Monthly):
A federal appeals court wrestled Thursday with what seems to be a straightforward question: Can Americans be required to show ID on a commercial airline flight?
John Gilmore, an early employee of Sun Microsystems and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the answer should be "no." The libertarian millionaire sued the Bush administration, which claims that the ID requirement is necessary for security but has refused to identify any actual regulation requiring it.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals seemed skeptical of the Bush administration's defense of secret laws and regulations but stopped short of suggesting that such a rule would be necessarily unconstitutional.
"How do we know there's an order?" Judge Thomas Nelson asked. "Because you said there was?"
Replied Joshua Waldman, a staff attorney for the Department of Justice: "We couldn't confirm or deny the existence of an order." Even though government regulations required his silence, Waldman said, the situation did seem a "bit peculiar."
"This is America," said James Harrison, a lawyer representing Gilmore. "We do not have secret laws. Period." Harrison stressed that Gilmore was happy to go through a metal detector.
Secret laws? How do we know when we break one if we don't know what the laws are?
Welcome to Kafka's world:
Somebody must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.