Justice: September 13, 2001
Yesterday's conversation with Fear left me wondering whether our response as a nation to the terrorist attack would be an action of justice or of retribution. Then I began to wonder what justice is, at which time an all-too-familiar voice interrupted my thoughts.
"Is this a question? If it is, I have an answer," said Fear.
"Yes," I said, "it's a question."
"Then here's my answer," replied Fear with relish. "It's, a simple question. One I'd think you could figure out for yourself. But, since you asked…
"Justice is doing to others what they do to you. Tit for tat, as it were. How can it be otherwise? If I hit you, don't you have the 'right,' nay the obligation, to hit me? Don't I deserve to be hit by you?"
"Why do I have the 'right' to hit you? What if you just found out that your mother died, and you're simply out of control emotionally? What purpose would there be in my hitting you. Would it solve anything? Would it make me feel better? Would it bring your mother back? Would it help you with your grief?"
"You are a namby-pamby, aren't you? How are you going to compete in this world if you don't look out for yourself first. Justice is getting even. Justice is retribution. Just read the damn newspapers and see how many people agree with me! Remember September 11, and the brilliant beyond brilliant attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?"
"Of course I remember; it just happened! We talked about it yesterday. Have you forgotten already?"
"No I haven't forgotten, you idiot. But did you read the column by Jill Porter of the Philadelphia Daily News?"
"No, when was it written?"
"Knothead, it came out today in your own hometown newspaper."
"Oh? Why do you ask?"
"Because," said Fear, "she understands what I mean by 'justice.' Let me read you three little paragraphs:
"'Let more rational voices call for restraint.
"'I heed the rage within. Find the bastards who did this to us and kill them, whoever and wherever they are.
"'The niceties of justice be damned. War might have rules, but our enemies don't play by them, and neither should we. Find them and assassinate them, these maniacal psychopaths who brought us to our knees.'"
"Just because fifty thousand people say a stupid thing a thousand times doesn't make it wise," I countered.
"Perhaps not, but who's to say what's stupid and what's not?" challenged Fear.
"I may not be very wise," I conceded, "but I do know what comes across to me as stupid, and perpetuating the cycle of your precious violence is stupid! You read something to me, now I'm going to read a paragraph to you, also from my hometown paper, the Corvallis Gazette-Times. It was written by one Paul F. deLespinasse on September 12. And before you challenge me as to who he is, he used to be a professor of political science at Adrian College in Michigan:
"Tuesday's attacks will not benefit the terrorists, and, terrible though they were, will do no fundamental damage to the United States unless we allow ourselves to be manipulated into foolish responses. Our actions should be determined by the benefits they produce for us, not by the damage they inflict on the terrorists. A great nation does not allow gnats to hijack its foreign policy, even if they can occasionally hijack an airliner."
"And you call this 'wise,' when at least 3,500 people from 80 some countries, mostly Americans, have been killed—murdered, I think you call it?" asked Fear in total disbelief.
"Of course I call it wise. At root, it's a moral issue, as all issues are. If we do what Jill Porter wants, which is what you advocate, we'd simply become what we're against. We'd lower ourselves to the same demented level as the terrorists."
"But what about justice?!" challenged Fear.
"We must maintain our self-respect with a superior vision and system of beliefs and the best justice we can muster—not with superior firepower," I said.
"First you let terrorists live among you; you even train them to attack you, and think your open society is wise? If that's true," continued Fear with noticeable agitation, "are you going to allow yourselves in 'America the free' to be turned into an armed camp and do nothing?"
"I admit that our national metal has been sorely tested, but we must learn, beginning now, to think beyond the limitations you would place on our minds, and we must, in our hearts, hold firmly to acceptance of different peoples when we can, tolerance or them when we can't, and uphold forever our principles of democracy and freedom. We rise above ethnic stereotyping based on skin color, background, and the behavior of a few."
"Ya, Ya," said Fear with impatience, "but what about justice!?"
"It's my contention," I said, "that there never has been and probably never will be real'justice' among human beings—equal justice that's unconditionally available to all. I mean the kind of justice captured in the Buddhist expression, 'The myriad streams of water, on entering the sea, are all of one flavor.' I say this because 'justice' demands impartiality and equal access, and no human being is capable of impartiality in anything, although we claim 'objectivity' in science and 'impartiality' in our judicial system—both with a great deal of hubris. Because humanity can only be subjective, it too often operates in the shadow of justice, not in its light."
"But what about a jury trial, is that not fair and just?" demanded Fear.
"Not in my opinion!"
"Why not?" demanded Fear again.
"If you'll be quiet long enough, I'll tell you," I answered sharply.
"Okay, but you don't need to be rude," replied Fear.
"First, to quote Mark R. Hamilton, president of the University of Alaska: 'If knowledge is power, access is empowerment.' And not everyone has equal access to the judicial system itself, or an equally competent lawyer, or an equally competent jury, and so on.
"Second, I remember being a witness in a criminal trial many years ago. I had to place my right hand on the Holy Bible and 'swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.' Having been forced to swear an oath of truthfulness, the lawyers from both sides promptly constrained my answers to their questions to a simple 'yes' or 'no.' Neither would let me give a complete answer—one that was truthful to the best of my ability to remember what I perceived to have happened, which made me out to be a liar on both sides. I can't think of anything that has left such an awful taste in my mouth as that experience. Truth? Justice? Impartiality? Where does it exist in our judicial system? Good heavens, people with money can purchase 'justice.' It's for sale, provided, of course, you have the where-with-all to pay the price.
"I've also been an 'expert witness' in court a number of times, dealing with environmental issues, and the outcome was always the same. The letter of the law was twisted time and again to favor industry and the politically powerful, while the land and the children's future—for generations to come—was sold to the highest bidder on a technicality, and years of valid scientific data were summarily thrown out as inconsequential in the face of 'procedure.'
"From what I've seen in court, the 'ends justify the means'—the product at any cost—even when we crucify one another on the witness stand to 'win' a victory at the cost of human dignity. When we go to court this way, we go to punish and if we 'win,' what have we won? We've won the legal right to remain stuck within the rigid limits of our thinking. We've won the legal right to retain our fear of change and inner growth and to argue for our limitations at the expense of our potential. We have won the legal right to humiliate our opponent, because the court has awarded us our opponent's dignity—the legal trophy of conquest!
"Because human values can't be quantified, legislated, or legalized, do the ends really justify the means when my victory is legally forcing you to 'change your mind'—termed compliance—so I won't have to change mine? Remember, I can only force you to change your mind, which really means your behavior, by coercion, which is legally controlling your actions, and I can only control your actions or anyone else's through the art of humiliation.
"Where's the justice in that? Where's the compassion and the genuine caring for the well-being of the children? Is the root of 'justice,' especially environmental justice, to be the cause of perpetual negative consequences for all generations to come?"
"Those who won thought the outcome was just," grinned Fear. "Did that make you angry? Did it make you resentful enough to wanted retribution or revenge, as it were? It's okay; it's perfectly normal, you know."
"Such emotions are not 'okay' with me," I retorted, "because all I do is lower myself to the other person's level. Besides, such emotions just fan the flames of resentment, which can, when it festers long enough, erupt into violence. Then revenge comes from the other side, which not only strengthens the cycle of violence but also perpetuates it."
"But," sputtered Fear in disbelief, "don't you see how each side is claiming justice through its actions—'an eye for an eye' it says somewhere in the Bible. Can your precious Bible be wrong?"
"First, it's not 'my' Bible; and second, the Bible, having been written by men, can most certainly be in error because men are fallible. Besides, if we operate on the premise of 'an eye for an eye,' we can only blind one another."
"Well," said Fear in disgust, "by all means, think whatever you want, but in the world of men, which, incidentally, is my world, retribution and competition shall reign as justice and fairness as long as I have anything to say about it! Let might make right; he who has the gold makes the rules, that's my motto of justice!"
""You are, naturally, completely devoid of compassion and thus of justice," I said. "You can try with all your might to hold the wind in your fist, but only those who are motivated by compassion and humility, wrong though they may be in their interpretation of events, can come anywhere near the ideal of 'justice,' and you're clearly not among them."
"So say you," snickered Fear. "So say you." And with that, Fear once again faded into the shadowlands of society from whence it had come.
© chris maser 2001. All rights reserved.