The man sat behind the wheel of his parked car, wiping sweaty palms on his jeans. He looked again in his rear view mirror, in time to see the Highway Patrol officer getting out of his cruiser— and neither of them was happy. The driver let out a final, loud sigh of resignation before rolling down his window to hand the lawman his license and registration.
“Do you have any idea how fast you were driving sir?” the patrolman asked professionally, accepting the small stack of documentation.
“Yes,” the man muttered, hanging his head in frustrated shame. There were times he’d been pulled over for ridiculous reasons and times he should have been pulled over and wasn’t, but this was neither of those times. This time, he’d been caught red-handed doing 70 mph in a 55 zone, and he knew it. He was guilty as charged.
The officer was quiet for a moment. He could see lines of fatigue on the man’s face. He noted the slumped shoulders. And, oddly enough, he felt bad for the man.
“I’ll tell you what,” the highway patrolman said, glancing around quickly and handing back the paperwork—“Why don’t you just have yourself a good day. And… slow down.”
The driver’s head jerked up suddenly in a disbelief that turned quickly to gratitude.
“Wow, really? Seriously? Thank you! Thank you!” he repeated again, scrambling now to close his glove box before adding to himself, a little louder than he meant to— “YESSS, mercy triumphs over judgment! There should be more police officers like that.”
By this time the officer had already begun heading for his cruiser, but, at these last few words, he winced and stopped in his tracks. “Well now,” he said, turning around slowly, “I really wish you hadn’t said that…” the driver froze— “…did you just thank me for showing you ‘mercy?’”
Sensing trouble but not daring to offend his benefactor, the driver of the car nodded an enthusiastic affirmative.
The officer was clearly troubled now and seemed to wrestle with whether or not to take the matter any further. Finally, with a look that betrayed a guilt of his own, he spoke.
“How do you understand the idea of mercy?” He asked, somewhat cryptically.
Taken aback, the driver thought furiously for some answer that would end this nightmare and get him back on the road.
“I don’t know,” he stammered, “I guess it’s sort of like love. Loving people are merciful people. Mercy is letting people off the hook.”
“So let me make sure I understand you,” the officer repeated for the sake of clarity—“Me, sweeping your guilt under the rug like I did just now, is ‘mercy?’”
“Yes?” The driver asked, eyes wide and hopeful.
“No.” The officer replied with a sad smile. “No, it isn’t mercy at all… it’s something else entirely.”
Now the driver was mystified.
The officer explained.
“We may call it a lot of things— like compassion, or having a heart, offering forgiveness or even showing mercy, but really— the hard truth is, if a crime goes knowingly unpunished, if nobody pays for guilt, it’s not love, it’s not justice, and it’s not mercy, it’s another thing altogether—it’s leniency. Leniency is never the same thing as mercy, because leniency ignores justice by excusing guilt. Leniency literally makes excuses for the guilty party so no one has to admit wrongdoing. You were tired. You had a long day. You were provoked. You didn’t have a healthy family life, were plagued by dyslexia and your parents named you ‘Jarvis,’ or whatever— so it’s not your fault— don’t worry about it. Leniency makes excuses for the guilty party. But mercy… well, as a sub-set of love, mercy is a sacrifice—it’s always costly to the one who dispenses it, it’s always inconvenient. Leniency excuses guilt and ignores consequences. Mercy forgives guilt by bearing the consequences of someone else’s actions. Leniency is never the same thing as mercy, because to make it mercy, someone’s gotta pay.
An unexpected whimper escaped the driver’s tightly-pressed lips. His eyes had begun to glaze over. Undeterred, the highway patrolman continued.
“You said you wished there were more police officers like myself, but if you understood that what I almost did for you wasn’t loving at all, that it wasn’t really mercy, but leniency, you’d be glad there aren’t more officers out there being lenient—it would be a much more lawless world. A good officer of the law doles out justice indiscriminately. That’s the most fair thing. The problem is— I also want to help you out, because… I’ve been in your shoes.”
The driver swallowed slowly, hardly daring to breathe.
“I do feel compassion for you,” the officer concluded, “but to keep that compassion from turning into leniency, there’s only one legitimate thing left for me to do.” And with that, the officer pulled out his ticket book.
“Wait, what are you doing?” the driver cried in alarm.
“Justice,” replied the officer, eliciting a moan from the man—“and mercy,” he added, signing his own name as the guilty party on the speeding ticket. “Have a nice day sir— you’re free to go.”