Friday, August 16, 2013

Forget About It

Human Justice

“I do not bring forgiveness with me, nor forgetfulness. 
The only ones who can forgive are dead; the living have no right to forget.”
—Chaim Herzog [1918-1997], Israeli statesman

The idea that revenge can be removed from justice is a false one, some legal commentators write. Revenge and justice are intertwined says Thane Rosenbaum, professor of law at Fordham University, in an thoughtful yet controversial article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Eye for an Eye: The Case for Revenge”; March 26, 2013).

In it, Rosenbaum writes:
But the distinction between justice and vengeance is false. A call for justice is always a cry for revenge. By placing their faith in the law, those who justifiably wish to see wrongdoers punished are not disavowing vengeance. If anything, they are seeking to be avenged by the law. No matter what they say, victims aren't choosing justice over vengeance; they are merely capitulating to a cultural taboo, knowing that the protocol in polite society is to repudiate revenge. But make no mistake: When it comes to the visceral experience of being a victim, revenge and justice are one and the same.
And everyone should feel similarly. After all, there is no justice unless victims feel avenged, when they believe that a wrong has been righted and honor restored. And revenge is never just if it is disproportionately delivered—if the retaliation exceeds what is justly deserved, measure for measure. Indeed, vengeance is not irrational (the common knock on revenge)—it's healthy and entirely human. Insisting that justice will suffice when revenge is what victims really want is both intellectually dishonest and factually untrue. Besides, in modern societies where vigilantism is disallowed, we all on some level reasonably believe that it is only by leveraging the law—and having the legal system serve as our proxy—that vengeance can be actually achieved.
Such is a strong human idea, and more than an emotion. When the state avoids taking appropriate action citizens sense injustice. My liberal sensibilities recoil against such ideas as revenge and retribution and yet I also know that revenge and the need for justice is as old as humanity itself. The need to protect the individual, family, and nations from serial killers, murderers, rapists and psychopaths—notably if unrepentant and unapologetic—is a normal response; so is the desire to punish, yes, retributive justice. As are the cases of crimes of national and international scope, such as the need to bring to justice war-mongering genocide-inciting dictators.

The biblical injunctions of “turn the other cheek” and “forgive then, for they know not what they do” ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth are contrary to the ideas of revenge and judicial retribution. They are also not truly human responses to wrong-doing and acts of evil.

That humans want revenge and justice for both personal crimes such as murder and rape and those against general humanity such as genocide and war crimes are normative and natural. These desires have taken place since man has walked the earth. Genocides and war crimes against humanity are taking place today; the nations are well known, and any nation can become an instigator if the conditions are ripe.

The dictum “forgive and forget” can never apply to such cases. The desire for justice and revenge are too strong, too visceral—built into our genetic code—to easily ignore. We can try to do so, in accordance with the noblest intentions of Christian religious doctrine, but then we wonder if we have acted in the best interests of society. The ideas of justice speak to us strongly and loudly about deterring abnormal and irrational acts like murder, rape and torture—those that go against the best ideas of civilization and human nature. Justice speaks about punishing an act of violence in hopes of giving the victim or victims some sense of normalcy and closure. This, of course, is not always possible, notably if the crime is particularly severe and violent.

The desire for justice is so strong that even in what are called minor personal injuries, there is often a strong desire that the wrong need be righted. For example, in personal matters, where individuals suffer at the hands of gossips, defamers of character and slander, individuals have often gone to court, suing for damages to their name, their character. It might not be about the money; a good name, after all, is so important that it needs to be protected from false accusations. This is not so much a matter of revenge, but it can touch upon justice.

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