Thursday, May 5, 2011

Vengeance Vs. Justice

Given the events that have unfolded in the last few days, I've seen a pretty clear public division on the general conception of "justice." Given how close these events are to the heart of many Americans, criticism and counter-criticism is to be expected. Put honestly - a good amount of what is on the tip of our collective tongue has been fueled by the emotions we have surrounding 9/11. But some of us would contend that this is both A and THE problem.

For those who may have been in a coma the last four days, Osama (Usama?) bin Laden has supposedly been taken out (within Pakistan) by US forces. A vast myriad of reactions followed, and the most surprising of them all - I thought at the time - was my own. I didn't feel happiness, vindication, relief, pride, or anything akin to such. Instead I felt quite a bit of apathy, and in a lesser sense even a lingering despair. I was actually kind of surprised by my reaction, or lack thereof. What's more, I couldn't help but feel the contrast between my non-reaction and the quite positively charged reaction of a good deal of the public.

Now, obviously, it's possible that some people are essentially celebrating the foiling of future attacks that might have been made by OBL. Possible. But plausible? Over the last ten years I've found my concern for what OBL might do next fading, and my concern for the over-all pretense of terrorist networks and the middle east at large growing. It didn't seem more likely to me that another 9-11 would come from the work of his hands than any other lackey within his organization. I know, simply from being, you know, awake, that I wasn't the only American who had exceedingly felt this way. So why the sudden spasm of joy and overt exaltation of the great ole' U.S. of A.?

The more I watched and listened, the more it was clear to me that many people were happy about this simply as a matter of revenge - only they called it by a different name; justice. This is where the stickiness begins. As a radical libertarian I suppose I find myself having the tendency to reject a Kantian vision of "justice." That isn't to say that I find it silly, per se. I think it's an emotional response (the seeking of vengeance) and it can often go hand-in-hand with justice...but I don't consider it the same thing at all.

To me, justice is a restoration of order. If you steal my car, justice is recovering my car or being compensated for it. Likewise, if you hurt me, justice is compensation through cost of care and other considerable opportunity costs I've been forced to bear in the interim. What justice is not, however, in my mind, is "eye for an eye." The difference between vengeance and justice is the difference between punishment and compensation. There was a time, even as a libertarian, where I felt that justice was largely constituted by punishment. But the more I thought about the foundation of my philosophy and ethics (the framework with which I feel my conception of liberty itself is solidly grounded) the less I came to see vengeance as the purview of justice.

Killing OBL cannot bring back the dead. And it also cannot thwart any future acts which detainment cannot. If anything, it robbed us of a chance to seek justice (to put him on trial before humanity formally), and it opened a door for martyrdom in some respects.

But let's assume that ending his life ultimately would have been the outcome - as a matter of "justice." It's still not clear to me why this should be celebrated. We may find relief in sealing the future off from his malevolent touch, but rejoicing in that marginally brighter future is quite different than rejoicing in his actual death - which is an act that, by what I've witnessed, included calls to mutilate his body on PPV TV, drag him through the streets, throw him off of New York sky-scrapers, etc. Drawing from an analogy I've made previously, I feel like some people are not so much rejoicing a successful open-heart surgery as they are rejoicing the cracking open of a sternum. And that is disconcerting - there is quite a difference between the two.

Justice is a cost that society bears. Justice is what happens when you fall into a hole. You can be happy you're out of the hole, at the end of the day, but rejoicing in the fact that we had to waste a bunch of resources digging our way out seems irrational. And, on the issue of OBL it's not even clear we're getting any further out of that hole by offing him at this point. Whether the act can rationally be chalked up to justice will be something for historians to figure out. The joy that I see people currently derive from vengeance, however, is something much more condemning in my eyes. It stands as a reminder of how easy it is to trade reason for our baser instincts and emotions. Aggression, along with the forceful motions we must use to thwart it, are unfortunate - and we should never lose sight of that.

One day, should we survive as a species, we may grow to wonder about how and why we ever derived so much pleasure in the discomfort of others.

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