Ever since our hairiest ancestors came down out of the trees and grouped themselves together against the dangers of an unforgiving world, we have made laws to govern ourselves. In the beginning, they were simple tribal dictates that set out reasonable behaviour within the group. Things like no stealing another guy’s vegetables, no peeing upstream from the village, everybody gets a slice of the mastodon, and no loud music after 11:00. In those days, there was only one punishment for breaking the rules. You were banished from the protection of the tribe and your life expectancy went from short and brutal to zero. Early humans understood that society was fragile, and if some wise ass wanted to be a jerk, he endangered the entire group. It was simple, rough and ready, but it worked. Humans, as a species, not only survived but thrived as a communal beast.
As our society progressed and got more complicated, so did our laws. We still had to protect ourselves against the unreasonable acts of certain individuals, but we measured the punishment in accordance with the severity of the crime. We remember this period today in the often quoted homily “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” These were still simple laws, but they worked well because everybody in the group understood the rules, and they were enforced by the entire community. For example, if Benjamin got caught eating Abraham’s carrots, he was expected to replace them – with a little extra for Abraham’s trouble – and all was forgiven. Once again, these rules allowed us to progress as a society because we didn’t have to spend all our time guarding our property against theft and vandalism, and we could sleep soundly at night, knowing that there was still no loud music allowed after 11:00.
As our society progressed even further, more and more people came under the protection of the law. Our rural villages developed into urban towns and started to interact with other large groups who had also adapted laws to protect their societies. This caused a serious problem, though, because our social groups were getting so large that not everybody knew all the rules nor understood them. Plus, although the rules between different groups were very similar, sometimes individual laws were surprisingly different. For instance, if the people in Town A understood that donkeys must be tethered when those same people went to Town B, where donkeys were allowed to roam free, their first thought would have been, “Wow! Free donkeys!” and they would have helped themselves. You can see how there’d be some misunderstandings; wars have been fought over lesser things.
Luckily, it was about that time that a guy named Hammurabi came along. Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who took all the rules he could think of and wrote them down. Actually, he had them chiselled into stone, but the result was the same. It was called the Hammurabi Code; a big, heavy copy of it is sitting in the Louvre in Paris, if you want to take a look. Hammurabi also set down all the punishments that fit the crimes so everybody in his kingdom knew exactly where they stood – vis a vis the law. At first glance, this looks like: “Great! Problem solved, and all is well with the world. Society can now progress even further, and we’re well on our way to putting a man on the moon in less than four millennia!”
Unfortunately, this is where history spins us around and gives us a pointed kick in the groin. Hammurabi either didn’t think or didn’t care that most Babylonians at the time were illiterate. They had no idea what the hell all the squiggles on the stone were. Ordinary people had to ask someone who could read to interpret the law for them. These bloodsuckers charges outrageous prices and grew fat off the misfortunes of others. They were called “law readers” or “lawyers” – say it slowly – and they’ve been skulking around our society ever since.
I will say no more about this because I’m scared of getting sued, but here are some laws, from around the world, that you may not have heard about but that are still enforced today.
In Massachusetts, it’s against the law to put tomatoes in chowder.
In Great Britain, it’s against the law to own and operate a television set without a license.
In Alaska, it’s illegal to wake up sleeping bears in order to take their picture.
Under the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14, Section 1211, enacted July 16, 1969, (note the date) it is against the law for US citizens to have any contact with extraterrestrial aliens – or their vehicles.
In India, it’s illegal to fly over the Taj Mahal.
It’s against the law for the citizens of Monaco to gamble in their own casinos.
It’s illegal to chew gum in Singapore.
There is a national law in Switzerland that requires every Swiss citizen to either own – or have access to – a bomb shelter.
The song “Happy Birthday to You” is still under copyright. Therefore, it is technically illegal to sing the song publically – without paying for the privilege.
In Iceland, it’s against the law to own a pet.
In Alaska, Hawaii and Maine, billboards are illegal.
And finally, my personal favourite: in Great Britain, attempted suicide is a capital crime whose maximum penalty is death.