Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Justice Not Vengeance

You may have noticed I do not link to very many sites on my sidebar. When I began blogging there was a lot of concern about sites being nuked for “questionable content” or even linking to such sites. Even though I knew none of my material would stray into that problem area, I worried that linking to certain sites might attract problems. Therefore I decided that, if I was going to put a link in my sidebar I had to be 100% comfortable with that site’s content and could feel comfortable recommending it to anyone who happens to read my blog. With that in mind, I am introducing two new links today. First is something new for me. While I am affiliated with two food websites that have blog listings, I have not linked to any food blogs. Recently though, I have found one that is well-written, diverse and even has something of an intellectual side to it. If you like what I write about food, pay a visit to Down Home Foodie, I think you will like her writing too. The other site I have been familiar with for a while, and I think some of my regular readers know it too. This site has an adult content warning in front of it, but I can assure you the site is clean. You may see a nude picture once in a great while but is not at all a porn site and there is nothing I would consider at all offensive. Because this is registered as an “adult” site, and also because at one time I was unsure about some of his previous content, I have been reluctant to link to Randy’s blog in the past but lately I am getting to really like this blog - he is one of my favourites. Like me, he seems to have a background in psychology/behaviour or something in that line, so we have been having some interesting discussions as of late. He is a regular at Scottie’s Toy Box and does visit here on occasion. Visit Randy’s blog at Or Words To That Effect...

Lately, I have noticed in this blog community there is much focus on the justice system and what it is doing or not doing. I have also waded into this discussion, as I find it quite interesting. I believe that part of the difficulty is that “justice” can mean different things to different people, and while it is supposed to officially be free from emotional response, most peoples’ concept of justice is heavily based on emotions.

And there lies the problem. I believe the motivation for many people who “seek justice” are not really after justice but revenge. Now revenge encompasses more than what you probably consider it to be, like vigilantism and multi-generation family grudges that usually involve a great deal of bloodshed. Revenge in a more mundane form is actually a desire to have the perpetrator of a crime suffer as much as the victim, because of the anger and/or hurt that the victim feels. Here is where vengeance get entangled with the concept of justice. Obviously as a society we consider it unacceptable that someone who has committed a crime should be able to avoid facing any consequences for their actions. It would also be heartless to disregard the suffering or damages inflicted on the victim(s) of such actions.

The desire for vengeance is deeply ingrained in us. As a social species, we rely on a set of communal laws to ensure we can continue to thrive as a collective. Therefore, if someone violates these laws, it threatens everyone and undermines confidence in the ability of one’s society to function. That is why fear and anger often rule and there is a desire for harsh punishments that inflict suffering. Over time, most societies try to implement a fair and effective justice system to ensure that the consequences meted out are appropriate. One of the earlier forms of justice is the biblical standard of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life”. The purpose was to set a punishment that was equal to the offense. Today this standard, especially when interpreted literally, is seen as barbaric and, in the New Testament, Christian tradition moves beyond his standard, in keeping with Christ’s teachings of love and forgiveness. It should be noted though that “an eye for an eye” was never considered by Jewish scholars to be a literal requirement. There are a couple reasons for this. First, this rule was actually a limitation as other contemporary nations punished minor offenses with disfigurement or death and the Israelites determined that the punishment can never be more severe than the crime. Second, due to the implications of this limitation, it is not actually commensurate to literally take out someone’s eye or knock out one’s teeth as punishment for doing these things. If you did these things, the accused might suffer additional harm as a result, rendering the punishment excessive. So instead, the practice was to require the offender to pay the monetary value of an eye, a tooth, etc. The exception was “a life for a life” since murder is a crime that can never be undone and it is completely impossible to place a value on a human life, the sages determined that the literal penalty of death is still appropriate. After all, there is no way in this case that the penalty can be exceeded as death is terminal. It should also be noted though, the Jewish high court in the days of the temple were extremely reluctant to impose any death penalties. Because such a penalty is irreversible, they put so many constraints and such a high burden of proof it was almost impossible have a case strong enough to merit the death penalty and a lesser punishment was used instead. Still, starting from the base principle of an eye for an eye still seems like unthinking retribution, albeit somewhat tempered, which is probably why in the New Testament, different standards were espoused.

So if we do not want our justice system to be based on seeking revenge, then what is the purpose? The best I can tell, the ideals of justice would entail that any wrong or illegal behaviour is met with appropriate consequences, the victims are protected, and an opportunity is provided for rehabilitation. The efficacy of the court systems of providing this ideal is not really my focus here as I am more concerned with personal ethics. Although justice is primarily considered a legal construct, we generally believe that “justice must be done” even in matters of ethical or moral violations that do not violate a governmental law. In any event, in discussions of ethics, civil laws are not constructed based on ideals but on consensus, so you take what you can get.

In my teens, one person whose life and writings greatly influenced me was Simon Wiesenthal, a man who was commonly known as a “Nazi Hunter”. He was a survivor of the Holocaust and the concentration camps and after liberation he dedicated his life to seeking out and putting escaped Nazis on trial for their crimes. With the passage of time, more people criticized him for doing this, as they felt that there was no good to be served in prosecuting old men decades after the crimes and surmising that Wiesenthal’s motivation for this continuing quest was revenge for what was done to him, his family, and his fellow Jews. He took great pains to explain how this was not at all the case, especially in his memoir published in the late 1980's, entitled Justice Not Vengeance. After the camps were liberated and Simon had recovered most of his physical strength, he went to work helping the allied tribunals set up to try Nazi war criminals. Over the next few years, he found that many former Nazis, who had committed some horrific offenses were living quite comfortably in many other countries, as close as Switzerland and some even seemed proud of what they had done. Many other survivors he talked to considered the only appropriate punishment to kill them - in other words getting revenge. This seemed wrong to Wiesenthal, like one was sinking to their level and being just as inhuman as their tormentors. By contrast, the Nuremberg trials were fair and sober proceedings, allowing those accused to defend themselves, and making judgements based on the evidence, even acquitting a few. To Simon, this was proper justice: outside judges who were not biased by being directly victimized judged the accused’s guilt and the severity of the crimes and set an appropriate punishment. Meanwhile, the process itself would ensure that the people do not forget about what happened and prevent such a tragedy from happening again. As for those who say it does not serve justice to prosecute men in their 80's and 90's in frail health whose crimes took place decades ago? To me, letting this go sends the message that there are no consequences for the crimes, as long as you hide away or lie about your past for long enough.

Contrast this to the current mess that goes by the name of the U.S. Justice System. I was particularly disturbed by the media circus that surrounded the recent Casey Anthony trial. Now it seems pretty clear that Ms. Anthony is no model citizen and certainly, as confirmed pathological liar, should not be trusted in any way, shape or form. And given the available evidence I would say that it is quite possible she did in fact kill her child. But considering the charges laid, the evidence presented, and the principle of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, not guilty seemed to be the only responsible verdict. Of course this infuriated everyone. I won’t even get into the appalling behaviour of the so-called “experts” on TV, and especially Nancy Grace, except to say that she actually is a lawyer, and as such ought to maintain some professional standards. But what really caught my attention was the insistence that she ought to be punished, despite the lack of proof, because the kid is dead. While they present this as justice, this is what I would consider vengeance. They start with the fact that a little girl is dead, quite likely murdered (but again, not proven). Therefore someone has to “pay” for this crime. But here the judgement of guilt has been made in the court of public opinion rather than law. With law you actually have to prove the case and the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. With public opinion it is the reverse except without the “until proven” part. And how does the public opinion form? Well, from the media reports, just about always sensationalist. This is why I can’t watch HLN for more than a few seconds without feeling like puking.

Another related concept that is quite interesting is perhaps more sensitive. We have just past the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks this past weekend. How do you see justice done here? For one thing, all the actual hijackers died while carrying out their evil. And can any of the other actions taken since be considered to be even some measure of justice? What if, for instance, the U.S. had been able to capture Bin Laden alive and try him, as was done with many top Nazis such as Hermann Goring, Rudolf Hess, and eventually, Adolf Eichmann? And currently, former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic is on trial for crimes against humanity for his role in the massacres in Bosnia. First of all, a fair trial for such a hated individual on U.S. soil and abiding by the rules of US law would be highly unlikely. But even if that were to happen by some miracle or if he could have been prosecuted at the International Criminal Court like Milosevic, would it even then be possible for justice to proceed? When other suspected Al-Qaeda members have gone on trial, they have turned it into a spectacle to continue their hatred and vitriol. Given the messages Bin Laden released in the past, such a scenario would be likely. So you would have the American people on one side howling for blood, and Bin Laden on the other issuing a rallying cry to all the other terrorists. The pursuit for justice dissolves into a tangled mess with no good outcomes. And the way it actually did end, there is certainly no justice but only a small element of revenge. But perhaps in such cases you can’t really do any better.

I think what we ought to strive for is not perfection, but to do the best we can, while remaining aware of our own natures, whether in policy or our personal lives. When it comes to the justice system, it is much more difficult as we have to weigh the priorities of all a country’s citizens, some of whom have no interest in the ideals of justice. Also, since our written laws must stand up in all circumstances and be fair to everyone, there is a certain lack of flexibility built into the system. But when we have been personally victimized, it might be helpful to remember that there is a natural tendency to seek revenge, but this urge is not good for society as a whole. Take a step back and think about what rules/laws were violated and what a fair and appropriate penalty would be. Note that I am not discussing forgiveness here. Forgiveness is something that comes later and is different in nature. It is also frequently misunderstood and I will discuss my thoughts on it in an upcoming post. That post will come together with a review of a book written by Simon Wiesenthal that poses some fascinating and difficult questions.

And one last thing before I close. A Happy 16th Birthday wish goes out to a special online friend. Thanks Amar, for being such a great inspiration and example to all.


  1. Thank you so much, Evan, for complimenting my blog. It means a lot that you find it well written and interesting enough to take the time to mention it in a post. How very kind of you.

  2. Down Home Foodie, welcome to The Writer's Kitchen. Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog and leave a comment. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer as well. As you can see, I do not write only about food, but there is plenty of that here too. I always like to encourage other thoughtful bloggers.


  3. Wonderful post Evan, I am digesting it slowly. You write very well and thoughtfully. Hugs Scottie

  4. Hello Evan. I am enjoying reading your post here. I have to say the history lesson on Jewish traditions of justice was welcome as I had always misunderstood the eye for an eye quote and thought it barbaric and useless. But a quick question. Do you believe in the concept of "statues of limitations" in which some crimes are considered too old to be prosecuted as doing so would be a miscarriage of "justice" and only an act of revenge?

    I think far too often in the USA now we are going back decades to prosecute and punish several crimes by people who may have committed only the one crime , but lead a clean productive life for 25, 30 or even 40 years since.

    To have true justice shouldn't the whole or entirety of a persons life be considered, not just the crime?

  5. Hi Scottie. I'm glad you are enjoying my posts. About your question, I do believe in having statutes of limitations, IN GENERAL. For some serious crimes however, I do not believe they should exist, especially those that cause permanent damage. Crimes that immediately leap to mind are murder and repeated, persistent abuse. For other things, like property crimes, ordinary assaults or drug crimes, yes an appropriate limitation makes sense.

    Murder is different. The victim is gone and the victim's family has been irreparably harmed. This is not something that recedes over time. Are there really that many cases of people being tried for decades old crimes? Of course, some are probably cold cases that got new leads thanks to new technology. Since these cases were either unsolved or pinned on someone innocent, these are important to press, no matter how much time has passed.

    I don't fully agree that the entirety of a person's life should be considered. So someone who has evaded justice for 20 years should be judged more leniently than someone who was caught steps from the scene? The former has benefited from avoiding taking responsibility for what they did. Prior records, community good and other factors in one's life can certainly play a role when deciding on a punishment, but justice does not require identical consequences - just appropriate ones. After all, we no longer operate by the principle of "an eye for an eye" (supposedly) in favour of a more nuanced approach.