In France, lawyers defending twenty-seven Roma, or Gypsies, charged with selling child brides and teaching children to steal added to the usual mitigating circumstances argumentthey’re poor, so they have to steal, and so would youthe claim that France couldn’t apply its laws because the Roma didn’t recognize them. They said (this is the New York Times’ summary) “in some cases they [the Roma] were simply following age-old Roma traditions and generally operate outside the norms of society in ‘the style of the Middle Ages.’”
“It is very difficult to interpret their behavior based on our own twentieth-century standards,” one of the lawyers told the Times. “This community crosses time and space with its traditions, and we in Europe have trouble to integrate them. Yet they have preserved their tradition, which is one of survival.”
The court, culturally insensitive, or culturally imperialist, or just French, found twenty-six of the twenty-seven guilty.
The prosecution was having none of it. Finding evidence that the Roma enjoyed expensive luxuries and had used modern criminal techniques, like tossing cell phones away after using them, the prosecutor said: “Someone in the Middle Ages would not be able to launder money amassed by children. They may have grown up in Eastern Europe. But they perfectly understood Western values. They were criminals.”
Yes, they were, but not for the reasons the prosecutor presented. (I’m assuming the court was right in convicting them.) Their use of modern techniques does not suggest they understand Western values. It only means they understand Western laws and what they have to do to evade them.
The prosecution was trying, we suspect, to find an objective basis by which to convict the Roma, that is, a way of disproving the defense’s claim on grounds the defense couldn’t contest. Because in a secular and pluralistic society the alternative is saying “This is right and that’s wrong, whatever your culture tells you,” and no one wants to say that out loud.