On the wall of my office at work hang two newspaper clippings. The first is an arresting photograph of an Iraqi woman, standing grief-stricken at the scene of a car bombing. The headline reads “Bombing Horrifies Baghdad Residents.” Above the photo is the legend, “Iraqi Children Targeted.” The second photo, equally stunning, is also one of sorrow and mourning. It shows the mother and aunt of Manuel Barela, who was gunned down at a local strip club in a case of street gang retribution.
Both photos somehow relate to a skewed sense of justice. In Iraq children are being targeted because someone else blew up the World Trade Center which angered somebody else who retaliated by bombing someone else. Someone must pay. In an Albuquerque parking lot, Barela – a gang – was killed because his brother stabbed a member of the rival gang. Despite the fact that the Barela’s brother is in jail awaiting trial, justice could not wait. Justice needed to be served.
What is justice? Webster’s defines it as among other things, “fairness” and “a reward or penalty as deserved.”
What of Justice and Virtue? We used as our model of virtue, the Aristotelian view that virtue was when something function in a state of excellence, that is, fulfilling its purpose. How do justice and virtue work together? Is justice a punishment for a lack of virtue – a lack of fulfilling out purpose? Or is justice itself the virtue? The Hebrew prophet, Micah gives us a stripped-down preview of the teachings of Jesus. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8. Italics mine). By this definition, if you are just, then you are virtuous. You are fulfilling the purpose required by your creator.
There is a difference, too, between just actions and justice. The latter is the ends to the other’s means.
Justice is an integral part of the various other concepts we have discussed this term. Heroism can be found in an actual act of justice. To act in a just manner can invite hate or retribution. The manager in Hotel Rwanda acted in just manner despite the threats to his life and the lives of his family. Those in public service, such as the police, and in theory, our judicial system are responsible for meting out justice. Self identity – We all see ourselves as just and fair. We feel, even if we are Hitler or Stalin, Amin or Pinochet, that we are just. We are all responsible to act justly and to serve justice. With knowledge comes responsibility. For the victims of these people, justice and vengeance should be fleet. But what is the difference between justice and vengeance? It is a fine line to be sure and one which is in the eye of the beholder.
In The Odyssey Homer gives us pure frontier justice with cowboys and cattle rustlers and a shootout at the OK Corral. This style of justice mixed with sugary sweet revenge seems to match our modern sense of fairness. It’s Hollywood-style payback, pure and simple, yet it is also a form of tribal reciprocity whose origins are lost in the mists of time.
Elsewhere in the Odyssey we see another concept of justice as well. Good performance garners a reward. Tell a good story and receive a reward. Do well and you are rewarded. Do poorly and you are not. Is this not also just and fair?
Justice is, in the end, dealt swift and sure as Odysseus and crew mop up the house with the suitors. All the suffering that Penelope, Telemachus and the rest of the household have put up with is avenged. In addition, Athena’s help in the matter shows that the gods themselves do have at least a modicum of a sense of justice.
Like the Odyssey, Dante’s story is rather a fantastic one, capturing the reader’s imagination. Yet, within it we see themes of justice. Divine justice is shown as an overarching theme. God can only be just and fair, and therefore sinful man must somehow pay for his transgressions.
Dante’s version of justice carries much of which we might agree with. Were we to be the one’s who suffered the worst in hell, we would probably agree with Dante. Lawyers and priests and fraudulent deceivers deserve what they get. Those who lust are not so bad. The dead gang-banger’s mother inevitably says “He was a good boy.”
Our modern view of justice is well represented in the pictures and stories of the grieving women of the streets of Iraq and the barrios of Albuquerque. An eye for an eye. In There Were Roses, a song lamenting the troubles in Northern Ireland, Tommy Sands paraphrases Ghandi saying, “Another eye and another eye till every eye is blind.”
In our popular culture, justice plays a dominant role in the media. The bully gets put in his place and we, the audience, feel the same sense of satisfaction at having seen justice meted out as we would if it were real. We love it. Our films set up a bad guy early on in the movie so that we have as much chance to learn to hate him as possible. We take it as a personal victory when the on-screen hero wins. This desire also gives us a clue as to why television programs such as America’s Most Wanted and Cops have been on for so long.
We tend to think of justice primarily in terms of crime and punishment, yet it also shows up in other places. We “judge” contests for winners. Are the winners then the most virtuous?
Though we have these classic, noble, virtuous examples that we may pay lip service to, as a whole, humanity is still pretty reptilian in its thinking. We tend to be reactive and knee-jerk. We can agree that “justice” means “my side wins.” We see justice as an end, rather than as a mean. We do not look for just actions (means) to reduce the need for justice (ends). Justice is not just selfishness. Justice is a desire, shared by all people for all time, and tied to our survival instinct. If our people are treated justly they will survive and therefore be able to be fruitful and multiply. They will be prosperous and strong. Strong and able to defend against attacks. Strong and able to deliver vengeance. And another eye and another eye till every eye is blind.