Props to Prudence for a Chaucer reference:
My wife and I have been married for four years, and we have a 2-year-old son. She’s going to school full time, our son’s in day care, and I work in a rapidly declining industry for mediocre pay. Times are hard financially. My wife was born in another country and abandoned by both of her parents as a child. She met her father only once, when he arrived unexpectedly at our wedding. Over the past year, she has begun talking to him on the phone and trying to build a relationship. He has recently offered her a substantial amount of money as a gift, an amount that’s close to my annual salary. We are living in the United States, and he is in my wife’s homeland, an impoverished nation that has suffered through several brutal wars over the past 40 years. The issue is complicated by the fact that my father-in-law fought for the faction that killed millions of civilians. He apparently rose through the ranks and is now relatively wealthy and owns a vast swath of land. Can accepting this money be rationalized in any way?
Dear Empty,There’s a reason the phrase “blood money” chills the blood. You know your father-in-law is able to give you such a generous gift because he’s become a wealthy man through murder and confiscation. You and your wife may be lovely and will use the money only for the most benign purposes, but Lady Macbeth can tell you evil stains don’t wash out so easily. I talked to Charles Tucker, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University, and he mentioned a couple of possible legal complications to taking the money. First, look up the Alien Tort Claims Act. This allows people who are the victims of human rights abuses to bring suit in the United States, even if the crimes were committed elsewhere. It is a legal growth industry, and if your father-in-law is caught up in such a prosecution, his victims could lay claim to his money—which could lead back to you. Also, if your father-in-law’s country is listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism, you could be subject to restrictions on accepting money from that country.
But let’s face the ugly fact that a good way to get away with murder is to commit it on a mass scale and assume your father-in-law remains rich and free. That still doesn’t remove the moral taint that you already acknowledge. Additionally, perhaps this generosity comes with some future strings. Maybe he contemplates a time when it would be useful to leave his country, so he’d like some relatives in America who feel an obligation to help him. Or maybe he wants to draw you in with a gift, then propose you start doing some financial laundry for him. Finally, Chaucer’s story “The Pardoner’s Tale” is an instructive take on ill-gotten cash.—Prudie