Sunday, March 20, 2005

Vengeance and Justice

During a 1988 Presidential debate, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was asked whether he would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife. He gave a dispassionate answer reflecting his faith in and hope that the American law enforcement and justice systems would find, prosecute, and incarcerate the guilty parties. And there went the election.

Dukakis’s answer wasn’t wrong. It was, in fact, just what you would want a Presidential candidate to have faith in and hope for. The problem with the answer, as with his statement that he was a card-carrying member of the ACLU, was that it was incomplete. Presented an opportunity to explain why he had this faith in American justice and what our justice system represents, he not only whiffed, he never even saw the pitch.

At the time of that debate, I was married but childless, a situation long since reversed. I have thought back many times on the question and reflected on how I would answer it. When I hear of a child kidnapped and molested, often ending with the child’s murder, it’s not hard to conjure the emotions of the child’s parents, the dread turning to horror and grief as every parent’s worst fears are realized. When my thoughts turn to what I would want to do to the person who could terrorize and torture my daughter, who could so cruelly end a life still so fresh, who could take from me and her mother the source of all of our most profound joy, pride, and hope, I find myself facing a part of me that resides within all of us, a dark raging demon of vengeance that would find no act too cruel, no pain inflicted too severe to make somebody pay for my daughter’s and my loss and suffering. In my deepest rage and despair I would become a creature reduced and driven by a primal lust for revenge. Were I allowed by society to loose that rage, that bloodlust, I would forever be shaped by my actions, by the surrender of my better angels to my demons.

There’s no danger of that happening, of course. We have a system of justice that spares society and crime victims from having to face and have to control those demons, from having to live with the consequences of opening those floodgates of vengeance. Though imperfectly, our justice system attempts to impose a sense of proportionality in the dispensation of justice. At least as importantly, it recognizes and acts on the notion that a crime against my daughter is not uniquely a crime against her and her family. It is a crime against society. Though not equally, we all suffer from crime and the imposition of punishment is our collective responsibility and we collectively share in the benefits of just punishment of the guilty.

I write of this now, of course, because of Eugene Volokh’s recent entry extolling the public participation torture and execution in Iran of a serial child killer. The good professor was rhapsodic in his description of the event, gushing about the purgative benefits of allowing victims’ families to mete out punishment and extract their vengeance. Volokh feels that such a frenzied outburst of bloodletting is good for the body politic. He reluctantly conceded a day or so after his initial post that such a system of administering “justice” in this country would be impracticable, what with the necessary amending of the constitution and the inevitable protests from bleeding hearts that would ensue. Sadly, we will have to continue to dispense justice on a different plane than Iran.

Our justice system, unwieldly and imbalanced though it is, does reflect the steady aspiration of man to rise above our basest and most bitter instincts. When we or those we hold dear are harmed, we want to inflict pain on those who have harmed us, to extract from them a pound of flesh. Vengeance though, as history has shown, does not equal justice and it does not propel us farther along the road to civilization. We struggle within ourselves to tame our appetite for revenge. Our institutions need to help us in this struggle.
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