Members of the Ithaca community gathered last Thursday evening to partake in a public debate based on themes found in Franz Kafka’s The Trial as part of the third annual Community Reading event. Students in a speech-and-debate class at Ithaca High School and community lawyers participated in the affair, entitled “The Great Debate — National Security or Individual Freedom.”
Sally Grubb, exhibit coordinator for the Tompkins County Public Library, said that she tried to come up with a variety of ways in which “we might have a public forum” to discuss Kafka’s novel and encourage “community participation,” before settling on the debate format. The two debate teams, which were comprised of two students and a lawyer each, argued for or against the idea that “the government should have the right to detain someone with minimal evidence in the context of national security.”
After both sides stated their cases, members of the audience were invited to give brief comments as the teams prepared their closing arguments. A teacher in the audience stated that the “Patriot Act is [already] a part of your life,” as she recounted instances when she had to sign Patriot Act clauses to receive medical aid and to obtain loans to buy a house.
After a brief interval, Liam Murphy, of the law firm Ward & Murphy, gave a closing statement for the “nay” side. He observed that in Kafka’s portrayal of a civil law system, “the court functions not to hear both sides, rather to find truth itself.” Reflecting on the American judicial system, Murphy said that the “founding fathers understood the flaw in [Kafka’s] system … where truth itself is never subjected to sunlight of public debate.”
“Government already has power to detain [someone] temporarily, without seeing a judge, but at some point someone has to put proof on the table,” Murphy said, urging the public not to “change this system over one heinous act.”
Khandikile Sokoni, an attorney for the City of Ithaca, then gave her statement for the affirmative side, stating that occasionally there are “grave circumstances that justify lowering the bar.” She urged the audience to “look at the history of democracy, where there is a fundamental and acceptable principle that, for the rights of the collective, there is a sacrifice of individual private rights.”
“You pay taxes,” she said. “You give away private rights to exercise the good of the whole.”
After both lawyers wrapped up their concluding arguments, the audience was invited to cast their votes in favor of in opposition to the motion. After counting the ballots, debate organizers revealed that the audience believed the “nay” team made the most persuasive argument.
When asked to comment on why they decided to take part in the community event, Murphy said, “I appreciate any opportunity to give something back to the community and I appreciate the opportunity to share my profession with people generally.”
The Community Reading was co-sponsored by the Tompkins County Public Library and Cornell University’s New Student Reading Project.
Archived article by Samira Chandwani
Sun Staff Writer