Friday, July 27, 2007


I want justice. I cannot have it. I want vengeance. I may someday take it. It's unlikely now. I have not planned for it, and I will not look for it. But what if I should stop some rainy night to aid a stranded traveler, and that person turned out to be an object of my wrath? What cold rage would not spring instantly from my heart and meet the monster with monstrous violence? I do have a taste for blood.

What is crime? It's a breach with the pact between the citizen and the society. By this definition, crime is relative. What's wrong in one culture is right in another. All tribes have laws about property -- those of which it is claimed otherwise still recognize ownership of individual tools or jewelry and the like. They all have laws about murder. Even when assault on the stranger is as casual as the throwing of a stone, life within the tribe is protected. The patterns are different, but the concept is familiar. Obvious.

When an individual breaks the law, he violates the social compact. He has removed himself from his obligations, and he is removed from the full protections that society is supposed to ensure. He imperils the freedoms by which a liberal democracy defines itself, and becomes subject to the coercive and punitive power of law. He is, then, an outlaw -- the original meaning of which was not merely a law-breaker or a brigand, but someone who was denied the protection of law and society-- as much outcast as outlaw. Nowadays, criminals are not subject to individual retributions, but rather to the vast "corrective" agencies of the state. It's probably more humane. Not too many people are suited for life in the wild woods. Obvious.

That's all well and good. Society has the wherewithal to protect itself from the incorrigible. But what about when it is society itself that breaks the contact? What recourse is there for the victimized individual against a criminal society? When there is no justice to be had, what is a man allowed to do about it? Not obvious.

Alas, we have no power. In the face of the implacably impersonal mechanisms of civilization, we have no power. We must hope for the notice of the influential, and appeal to the whim of the powerful. We must become supplicants no more to the ideals and theories of liberal democracy. Rather we must revert to the more ancient ethos of the tribe.

The other option is to extract a private justice. Vengeance. We pay lip service to how wrong it is. Justice has been defined, you see, as belonging exclusively to the state. Is the state, though, the only agent that has such a claim? Is there no justice but what government says it is? This is, technically, an insane idea. We do not vote on reality. It is what it is, and whether or not we agree with it will have no effect on the facts.

This becomes unarguably apparent when we recall the simple truth that it is politicians who make the laws, and lawyers who interpret them. The first group has many members whose primary qualification for their office is that they are good at being popular. Members of the second group are renowned for making themselves sound right no matter what side of an issue they argue for. Justice is in the hands of such people. Obvious.

What then is justice? I've talked about it before. It's important to me. One of those rare and valuable things that I flatter myself I have wisdom enough to appreciate. Justice is an equal and appropriate response. If your child is murdered, you do not kill the child of the murderer. It is an equal response. It isn't appropriate. Only the guilty should be punished. If you commit a crime, the state attempts to evaluate its gravity, and it tries to balance the scales held by the Blind Woman by imposing a counterbalancing punishment.

Usually, incarceration is the answer. Pretty stupid. How is the victim compensated? Punishment isn't the whole of justice. It only increases the amount of suffering in the world. This is as it should be. Evil actions should cause pain to those who commit them -- a pain equal to that of the innocent victim of evil. But the harm to the innocent should be undone, if it is possible, if means for doing so can be conceived. When property is involved, we might hope for some approximation that will replace what was lost. When lives are involved, the solution is inevitably ignored. Can't bring back the dead. Thus, there is no justice. Obvious.

And what about when the criminal is society itself, or when society refuses or neglects to punish the criminal? Well, I've said it. Vengeance. Public, and so punished by society, rightly or wrongly -- or secret, and so inherently cowardly.

There is a final choice. We go through the futile motions of appealing for redress to the uncaring world. We dig into the secret places of our souls and draw out the savage who understands the blade and the bludgeon. Or we learn to forgive, forgive even the thing that harms us most.

None of them seems satisfactory to me. I want vengeance. I'd settle for justice, if it existed. But haven't I been a victim too many times, that I should lay myself again on the altar of self-sacrifice?

No. No, I haven't been a victim too many times. We can never be victim enough, it seems. We are met with an impersonal or vindictive world, and no pleading and no rage can secure any reprieve from its casual sadism. The Buddhists almost have it right. Life is suffering, and its cause is desire. The answer however is not to cease desiring -- it's to accept the suffering. We desire justice, and peace, and love. Shall we not desire these things? If we cannot find them, or any combination, shall we conclude they are not worth seeking?

In a world that hates what is fine and right, those who love virtue will always be victims. Almost always. So no, I haven't been a victim too many times. I will always be a victim. And if on a rainy night I should come upon some agent of destruction, I would feel my heart break again with a grief I had thought buried in time and ashes, and I would act as my love of virtue demands. Obvious.


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