When does illegal become criminal?

For countless years we’ve been tossing words at each other, verbally and otherwise, sometimes friendly, infrequently not so palsywalsy. So it came as no great surprise when at Monday’s senate sitting the president sought clarification on more than one occasion for what had been uttered with faces as straight as only the best poker players can manage.

I hasten to add that there was every chance what I saw on my TV screen was indicative of the possibility the queried words had been spoken by blank-faced senators permanently out to lunch (see “It Started With Rochamel” in this issue).

Nevertheless I was somewhat taken aback when my old friend the senate prez stopped Senator Montoute in his tracks to admonish him for persistently following up his references to “belated guarantees” with the adjective “illegal.”

Said the prez, the particular word, as used by Senator Montoute and his colleagues made him queasy. For a start, he added, there were no sanctions attached to the referenced “illegalities.” Moreover, the word implied someone had committed a crime.

He’d feel a whole lot more at ease, the senate president said, if senators would instead talk about actions “not in keeping to the law.” Which brought to my own mischievous mind the popular preference for the “N-Word” over “niggah,” and “custodial engineer” over “janitor.”

There are also the phrases “he or she passed” or “kicked the bucket,” which many consider far more polite than the unvarnished “died.”

I am at this point reminded of what Norman Mailer wrote in a review of one of his pal James Baldwin’s more beloved books: “The trouble with Jimmy is he can’t resist perfuming the word ‘shit.’ If only he’d accept that even shit has its own integrity.” Is it any wonder Norman Mailer (deceased) remains my favorite writer?

But to return to the word-appreciative President of the Saint Lucia Senate. I still cannot figure out why on Monday the word “illegal” caused him pause. After all, there were the definitions of the word, provided both by regular and law dictionaries.

One of my better regarded lexicons defines “illegal” thus: “Not lawful; against the law; forbidden.” Now let’s look up “crime.” This is how The American College spells it out: “A wrong act that is against the law; a violation of law; a wrong
act . . .” synonymous with “offense, trespass.”

So now, Mr. President, why does the word “illegal” bother you when applied to actions that contravene Section 41 of the Finance (Administration) Act? Oh, no need to remind me that right or wrong the President of the Senate always has the final word on everything senatorial.

To paraphrase a famous citizen of Wonderland: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less!”

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