Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Inverting Justice

“Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured
are as indignant as those who are injured.”
Thucydides

Having made liberal use recently of the Romans in general and Julius Caesar in particular – both the historical figure and Shakespeare’s play of the same name – I thought to give both the real and the fictional empires a rest.

Yet the very universality of the Bard’s themes make this difficult, especially the use and abuse of power, the injustices such abuses create, and the inevitable struggle to rectify the abuses – either through the medium of accountability to the rule of law, the moral high ground – or through exacting vengeance, a remedy better left to the gods, as the ancient Greeks cautioned so many centuries ago.

And that, more or less, brought me to Thucydides and Athens, whose history is punctuated by both the legal defense of its democracy from the Persian empire (which included present-day Iraq) and by its own aggression against neighboring city-states until it, too, was subjugated by others.

I had anticipated that the most senior justice official in the cabinet, Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales, would have testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on why eight federal prosecutors were fired late last year and why his earlier testimony conflicts with documents and sworn statements from other Justice officials. His appearance was postponed when the extent of the carnage at Virginia Tech – the slaying of 32 teachers and students – became known.

The events Monday raise questions, very different ones, of individual and collective justice, of accountability for one’s actions, and of the obligations of community to help those who are injured bear their burden. Psychological support undoubtedly will be available for the families of those killed and wounded and their friends for as long as it is needed. But for the survivors, April 16, 2007 will remain a day of unexpected tragedy and injustice for the rest of their lives. It is, in a fundamental sense, the equivalent of September 11, 2001—not just for the relatives of the dead, but for the faculty and students past, present, and future; for the town of Blacksburg; and for the wider, surrounding Virginia community.

But should we then continue to broaden our conceptual horizon beyond the U.S. and take in other countries and regions of the world, what comes into sharp relief is the plethora of violent injustices inflicted on thousands of ordinary people every day who lack community support. Today Iraq seems to have gone mad; in mid-afternoon Washington time, the death toll just in Baghdad from six car bombs had already gone over 175, with, according to one reporter, 120 dead from a single blast. This comes on top of the 150 Iraqis whose lives were unjustly taken on Monday and Tuesday. Then there are the thousands killed everyday in Sudan, Somalia, Colombia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Sri Lank, West Africa – wherever armed struggle is being waged – as well as those who die from malnutrition, starvation, exposure, or war-induced illness.

Intellectually, we know of these injustices and that Thucydides’ analysis of how justice is to be secured – by developing the institutions and the procedures that are indispensable for implementing the rule of law – is quite rationale. Moreover, it is quite Greek in the sense that ultimately it is the gods or their spirit agents who exact vengeance and right injustices. What Thucydides’ maxim does not do – because it cannot – is provide the emotive release that has become part of the U.S. (and the wider Occidental) sense that justice is due not only to those who actually suffered the harm but to those left behind when the injury was fatal. For the ancients, the question was simply that of justice sought, justice rendered

What I think has changed is the substitution of the Hebraic lex talionis for the less emotive (because less “humanistic) Greek caution to leave retribution to the gods. Not only did this Hebraic code overshadow and eventually supplant the Greek admonition to leave vengeance to the deities, it trumped the similar Biblical assertion that vengeance belonged to Yahweh. But if the gods do not dispense justice to those injured, that burden becomes that of fallible humans in the unfamiliar role of arbiters of justice.

The assumption of this role as fallible arbiter inevitably fed the sense that justice sought no longer was justice rendered. But the inversion did not become clear until a new reality burst into our collective consciousness. We saw it in Kenya and Tanzania in the late 1990s. It hit us in the face in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. It has surfaced strongly in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Blacksburg, Virginia. In all these cases – and others – the person who caused the injury deliberately died in the act of inflicting the injury. In fact, it appears that THE motivating or inspirational power impelling the actor was the expectation that his or her death is “justice in action.” In his or her mind, the individual inflicting the injury sees the community as the source of injustice while she or he is transformed into the injured party.

Which, or course, is backwards to a western mind, for in dying in the act of inflicting injury, the perpetrator undercuts the whole notion of present accountability for one’s actions. Yet it is the expectation of accountability for one’s actions (or inactions) that is the ultimate restraint on injustice as much as it is a catalyst motivating the community to act to uphold justice and to sustain the rule of law.

Should we lose this level of community, justice become little more than “every person for herself or himself.”

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