The Limits Of Justice

The news here in the Boston area has been reporting the end to a two decade mystery. In 1992 a young woman was murdered in her home by an intruder. She was repeatedly stabbed and left for dead. The woman, Kathleen Dempsey, was still conscious and called 911. A dispatcher decided for some unfathomable reason to treat it as a hoax. After five hours or so the authorities arrived too late and found her dead. Now after nineteen years the police have reported they know who did it.

This was striking news to me because I knew Kathy quite well. She was a good friend and a kind spirit. I was very fond of her. It was a very difficult time for many people within a mutual circle of friends. The brutal nature of her death and the knowledge that nobody had been caught has always remained in the back of my mind.

Now that finally her killer has been discovered the news often refers to justice. I’m finding myself strangely dissatisfied. The killer is a nasty specimen already in prison for the murder of another woman. So he will get more jail time? Is that it? Is that justice? His picture has appeared in some news reports and I am not ashamed to say my first impulse was to want his sorry carcass hanging from a yardarm.

The purpose of this blog has been to explore the idea of Agathos, what is “good” in the sense of what is worthy, a fully human life. The earliest primal foundations of Agathos come from Homer’s epics. The measure of justice in that worldview is clear. When Achilles’ cousin and companion Patroclus was slain by Hector, Achilles in turn slew Hector. In his rage and grief Achilles tied Hector’s corpse to the back of his chariot and dragged it around the city of Troy a few times. It has its appeal.

The problem is that 20 years ago the main suspicion for this murder fell on another man. I certainly thought he did it. Many others did too. There were some compelling reasons for believing this individual was guilty. If it turns out that he was indeed innocent then some act of vendetta would have been unjustified and only added an additional tragic note. It is a sobering thought. I suppose that is why over the centuries we have decided to be a society of laws and be less quick (more or less) to reach for the proverbial sword.

As Greek philosophy progressed, the idea of human virtue became more balanced. Courage and justice came to sit alongside wisdom and moderation as the big four. Aristotle came to the conclusion that people perform bad acts out of a combination of ignorance and/or irrational desires. The bad man is deficient in some way. This is thankfully not some religious dictum calling us to simply turn the other cheek. However, understanding that ignorance or imbalance is what leads people to do ill seems to require some degree of restrain if not compassion. It is needed if we, ourselves, want to be balanced individuals. Engaging in some vengeful act of retaliation may only compound our miseries and lead us to bad, unworthy actions of our own. Socrates and later the Stoics told us that while others can do us injury they cannot truly harm us if they cannot make us abandon our character, our virtues, our choice to be Agathos.

It all makes sense but its a hard bit of medicine to swallow. So what do we do with someone like the SOB currently sitting in jail?

It may not be the course of wisdom or moderation to seek retribution. Maybe its not really our place to put this guy down like a rabid dog. However it is certainly right for us to prevent ill from occurring. If we cannot stop it from happening initially then we stop it from happening again. If such an abhorrent act could be prevented in the moment with everything including lethal force then I can’t think of a single valid ethical objection. Every martial tradition I have practiced teaches that the individual has the right to self-defense even if we do not seek or wish to do harm. After the fact, maybe preventing ill means keeping him where he is no longer threat. Maybe some compassionate soul can help him out of his ignorance and illness. It sure as hell wouldn’t be me. I’m a Stoic not a saint.

I don’t have a good simple clean solution. There isn’t one. There is pretty much just the realization that what was done cannot be undone. We engage in damage control and comfort the living. Its a hard lesson that we cannot control or fix or change everything. We can only choose our responses, stop the ills we can stop, live as fully and well as we are able and aid others in doing the same.

I have thought of Kathy often over the years and I am glad to see at least a potential end to uncertainty. It may bring some modicum of peace to her family and friends. For myself, after twenty years I am less the rageful Achilles seeking heroic justice and maybe have a tiny bit more wisdom and moderation. But I am still saddened.

7 Responses to “The Limits Of Justice”

  1. Very nice piece. One of the things that struck me though was the idea of the religious dictum to turn the other cheek. I thought you might like the idea a bit more if I shared with you what the Lutheran church teaches re: that particular passage. Jesus instructed that if you are, “struck on the left cheek turn the right cheek to him also.” If you are struck on the left cheek it is a backhanded slap. The backhanded slap was meted out on those of lower rank than the person doing the slapping. When you turn your right cheek you must be slapped with the palm, which was reserved for those of equal rank. So what Jesus was telling us to do was to stand up to authority and show them that we are all equal. Not to be passive and just let people beat the hell out of us. Also I’ve been reading the Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu and he has some interesting thoughts on your subject.

  2. Christine, Thanks for the reply. That’s very interesting re. the meaning of the slap. I don’t recall ever hearing that way back in Catholic school! Then again, in Catholic school I don’t think they wanted to encourage us to stand up to authority. 🙂 I haven’t read “Spirit of the Laws”. I’ll have to take a look.

  3. You are a most gracious blogger. I can’t see how to subscribe. A little help?

    The Spirit of the Laws is my favorite book since Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. In it M. explains the law as the agreement between men and peoples, removing god as a source of law altogether, under the three basic forms of gov’t; monarchy, despotism and republic. In Part 1: Book 6: Chapter 2, he says “If you examine the formalities of justice in relation to the difficulties a citizen endures to have his goods returned to him or to obtain satisfaction for some insult, you will doubtless find the formalities too many; if you consider them in their relation to the liberty and security of the citizens you will often find them too few, and you will see that the penalties, expenses, delays, and even the dangers of justice are the price each citizen pays for his liberty.”

    Later in chapter 12: On the harshness of penalties, to paraphrase he concludes that the harsher the penalties the more despotic the gov’t. Harsh penalties beget harsh penalties because the people become inured to the new harsher penalty and it no longer prevents the ill so there must be a new even harsher penalty. This process is an attack on society and, “Once the ill has been corrected, only the harshness of the legislator is seen, but a vice produced by the harshness remains in the state; spirits are corrupted, they have become accustomed to despotism….If there are countries in which shame is not an effect of punishment, it is a result of tyranny, which has inflicted the same penalties on scoundrels as on good people.”

    What I really enjoyed about your essay was that you already have an appreciation of this ‘spirit’ of the law. We need more people examining and reasoning through our problems. Thank you. I often find myself in trouble with people who see the despotism of the criminal justice system but can’t abide my application of the same principles to the regulatory state.

    • Christine, if you click on the Agathoi header on top of this page it will take you to the home page and there are subscriber options on the sidebar down a little bit.

      I really like the first passage you posted. It sums it all up very neatly. We do have to watch out what sort of punitive system we create or it can come back to bite us when other issues are at stake. Its especially difficult in a case like this where it is so specific to one individual and the sheer hatefulness is so obvious. How do you not rig up the chariot and get ready for a little corpse dragging? But as that second passage observes, it can be a slippery slope. A few events I’ve observed over time have shown me it doesn’t take much to grow accustomed to brutality.

      Thanks for taking the time to post that.

      • Thanks for the assist. I don’t subscribe to much because it seems too much is from pompous ideologues with not a scrap of inquiry left in them.

        I don’t know what form justice can take in the brutal of murder of your friend. I share your desire for vengeance. A wrong was done to my son that caused him an emotional breakdown lasting over a year. I still harbor feelings of wishing I had clubbed the culprit to death when I had the opportunity. I think in your story the more important/significant event is that in the heat of passion the wrong person was not convicted. We hear so often of police concocting evidence in order to close cases of forced confessions, and all manner of corruption in criminal cases and at least in this case our justice system worked. The rights of the suspect were maintained in spite of what I’m sure was considered irrefutable suspicion.

        Perhaps we need a season of justice, like the holiday season, where instead of It’s a Wonderful Life we all watch The Oxbow Incident. Or for those who need a little more shock value, Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. Be warned Irreversible is a film you can’t un-see. I personally don’t need my lessons in virtue to be quite so graphic, I think the point is lost to many, but I guess it works for some.

  4. On a good day, I think there is some Cosmic Order, some Rta or Tao, and it is our duty to suspend emotional responses and use wisdom to interpret every matter and slowly come to a best decision, one that is in accord with the Order.

    On a less spiritual day, I get the feeling there is no Cosmic Order – or at least not one we are capable of comprehending, and as a result:
    There’s no Justice (with a capital J) – there’s just us.”
    No Themis, only nomoi, only our human attempts at it, and they will certainly be flawed from time to time.

    Regardless, whether it be the Gods, or quirks of quantum physics that lie behind our creation, our hearts are what they are. I certainly can’t fault you for being human and wishing to see this waste of flesh be hung from a gibbet.

    I think further discussion requires a fine single malt ….

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