Sunday, July 22, 2012

Justice, Vengeance, or Something Else

Because of the energy-savings program at work in the summer months, we work four ten-hour days each week instead of five eight-hour days. As a result, I was home for the deluge of media – both social and mainstream – coverage of the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Everyone had an opinion about what happened, what could have prevented it, or what mental illness the shooter must have had. By the evening news, much of the originally reported information had been revised or corrected. Nevertheless many of the tweets, posts, and even online news articles remained accessible with the faulty information.

Common in all the media were calls for justice. Depending on the bent of the media, the level of rancor around the call for justice ranged from “string him up” to “life in a mental institution (because only a crazy person would do such a thing).” The more I listened to the discourse, the more it became clear that no one talked about justice: everyone imagined some form of vengeance.

venge•ance [ven-juhns]  noun
1. infliction of injury, harm, humiliation, or the like, on a person by another who has been harmed by that person; violent revenge
2. an act or opportunity of inflicting such trouble.
3. the desire for revenge.

Vengeance comes naturally when we have been harmed by a known entity. The nature of the attack in Aurora threatened us all because it occurred in a situation common to almost everyone. People doing something people do every day suddenly found themselves caught in a situation beyond what a normal imagination could invent. We all felt the threat and found ourselves imagining that we could have been in that theater and wondering how we would have reacted.

We want to hurt the person who destroyed our sense of safety in a mundane activity.

We falsely latch onto the idea that vengeance guarantees that such an event will never happen again. History shows us that similar events happen repeatedly with new twists inspired by technology available in the time. Our entire penal system works on the principle of vengeance; if vengeance truly worked, far fewer people would be incarcerated.

jus•tice [juhs-tis]  noun
1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness.
2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason.
3. the moral principle determining just conduct.
4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct, dealing, or treatment.
5. the administering of deserved punishment or reward.

So many of the commentators felt they used the fifth definition of justice when they proposed penalties for the gunman. They failed to meet the definition by speculating without full knowledge of the story. They reacted to the events as the initial presentations captured the emotion of the events as recounted by survivors or assumed by commentators in watching the cell phone videos some took as the event unfolded.

We do not know if the shooter is mentally ill. We do not know the motivation. We do not know volumes related to the case. In the coming weeks and months, because the police captured the (alleged) shooter alive, we will likely be able to develop a more complete understanding of the story. Even so, a clear explanation of why or how the event came to be may never emerge.

Human nature desires concrete answers to events that shatter routine. When they do not emerge, we seek solutions that make us feel better. Vengeance serves that purpose. Justice, when viewed in its fullness, rarely alleviates our pain, so we turn to more drastic measures found in vengeance. I do not blame any of the commentators for their jump on the vengeance bandwagon. We feel better when we imagine the worst possible thing that can happen to a person who does such a heinous act. I simply think we need to be honest in our vocabulary. Justice does not always make us feel good. Vengeance often does.

When I believe I have been wronged, I never imagine justice; I only imagine vengeance. When I talk about it, I call it justice, but it is not. Justice, as a central principle of the United States, is the political word to say. Vengeance, though, orders my thoughts and wishes. It is not as ugly as we imagine; how often do we actually enact vengeance on those who have done us harm? When all plays out, I usually settle for justice. My mind, of course, still considers vengeance, and I let the situation drift into history with all the might-have-beens.

Justice in the Aurora shootings will be hard to define and even harder to enact. Too much pain and suffering extends beyond the walls of that cinema. All of us who go to a movie will, for a period (we have short memories), look at the arrangement and those sitting around us differently. The lives ended and the injuries incurred cannot be redeemed through one maleficent person – regardless of the punishment we inflict upon him.

We can, for a time, relish our darkest thoughts. Eventually we return to the world in which we live. In it we understand the shortcomings of friends and coworkers and we love them for their quirkiness and we compensate for it in planning our daily work. Vengeance has its place, but let us be cautious that it does not become a defining characteristic. Let us embrace justice, even when it fails to satisfy our base needs, and let it define who we are as a people.
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