How often in movies, on television and in video games, do we watch the so-called good people attacking the presumed bad people without realizing the good people and the bad people are doing the same thing, attacking and killing their enemies? We munch on our popcorn as the good people make the bad people hurt as much as the good people feel they have been hurt, and cheer when a lose-lose situation for all is deemed a win for the good. But if this is justice, why doesn't it lead to peace, instead of one attack followed by another in the next sequel?
One reason justice so often fails to produce the happy ending we expect is because of widespread confusion about what the term justice actually means. Does it mean impartiality? Fairness? Getting even? Killing the wrongdoers? Reconciliation? Forgiveness? Without a clear definition, it is possible for authority, decorum and technicalities to masquerade as justice, even when substance is lacking. We may fail to discern the difference.
How has our deep-seated confusion around justice prevailed for so long? As a former trial attorney, I can speak to that. In law school, I was told I would be learning the best legal system in the world, a system of punitive justice. When clients encounter a breach or a conflict, that system offers them punishment and revenge (punitive justice) as the way to address the breach. When they go home, to school and to work and they feel wronged, they model what they have experienced, they seek punishment and revenge.
Our schools have started calling for "Zero Tolerance," teaching our children at an early age how quickly we, in this culture, seek punishment and revenge. When they are bullied, or someone steals their sweetheart, they seek punishment and revenge.
When a breach in a relationship or the violation of community norms occurs, we often fail to recognize that there are two distinct models of justice to choose between.
On the one hand, our goal can be to punish the guilty, to get even, to seek revenge. This punitive type of justice seeks the imposition of control to enforce compliance; its answer to harm is more harm. The "justice" in this scenario is that the harm you do to those who have harmed you is to be proportional, i.e., the eyes gouged out are to be approximately equal to the teeth knocked out. It is this--proportional revenge--that the set of scales that we use to symbolize our justice system represents. Another way we express this is to say "the punishment must fit the crime." While this punitive form of justice requires a degree of restraint that definitely makes it superior to barbarism, we can do better.