I recently visited the city of Vienna for the first time. Sarah’s family was rendezvousing in the Austrian capital to go to a few concerts at the gorgeous Musikverein, where the Pittsburgh Symphony had taken up residence for a week. My wife’s sister, Jennifer, is principal second violinist of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
While Sarah, her parents Al and Willie, Jenny, and the remaining sibling, Charlotte, were having quality family time shopping, I took the subway to the Schonbrun Palace with Charlotte’s husband, Matt Katz. The fare was 2 Euro each way, and we dutifully put our money into a machine and got a little ticket. At no point on our journey were we required to show our tickets. We simply walked down to the platform, boarded the train and exited.
After a pleasant but crowded visit at the Schonbrun, Matt and I headed back. Matt dutifully purchased a ticket, but I suddenly felt like rebelling. Why, when I visit my sister, Marissa, in Washington, DC, and take the Metro to the National Mall am I required to insert my ticket both upon entering and upon exiting? Why, when I visit my Mom and Dad in Brooklyn and take a subway to visit my brother, Everett, in Manhattan must I put a Metro card into the turnstile in order to gain entry? The answer of course is that the American system does not feel like tempting its riders into breaking the law — sort of like not putting a stumbling block in the path of the blind. It seems that for many Americans, unsupervised access to public transportation would tempt many to ride for free.
With the 75th anniversary of kristallnacht approaching in a few months, I am here to report that the Austrian government can still depend upon its citizenship to dutifully obey the rule of law. The Viennese metro system is so confident that its riders will not be tempted to break the law that there are no barriers to entry or exit. Something about this really bugged me. The system is built upon obedience to law, but I did not feel like playing along with this game. If New York and Washington have to go ahead and use expensive measures to deter theft of ridership, then Vienna should have to do the same. Are Americans less moral than the Austrians? My experience in the Viennese underground did not give me confidence in the goodwill of humanity — the opposite. It reminded me of a time when to obey the law was the wrong thing to do.
Yes, I would prefer it if the Viennese didn’t obey the law so easily. I would prefer it if there were some kind of internal mechanism through which they determined whether or not to obey a given law. And you know what? This internal mechanism could even be of the lowest level, could even be simply at the level of self-interest. The deadliest murderers in the Holocaust often turned out to be people who were willing to put aside self-nterest in favor of obeying the law of the land. Before I do the right thing and pay my Viennese underground fare, I want to be confident that the Austrian people have learned to distinguish between laws that violate human rights and such routine laws as those that support public transportation. In itself, following the law is not a recipe for moral probity.
For the record, that night, while we were having Shabbat dinner in an old Viennese apartment (with Sarah thinking that the gestapo was going to break in at any moment), my father-in-law said that he was not at all impressed by my philosophizing. Al told me plain and simple that I stole and that stealing cannot be justified. He said that a decision to visit Vienna entailed a commitment to abide by its laws.
Did my small act of disobedience accomplish anything? Perhaps it has convinced you to be a law breaker next time you ride the Viennese underground? As a bonus, you’ll save 2 Euro.