On Justice

I’ve heard it said that approximately the same number of people control 95 percent of the world’s economy as are in solitary confinement in the United States. There can be little doubt as to which group has killed the greatest number of people. The same would hold true for which group has stolen the most, especially if we include resources, and which group has most damaged the planet. It is entirely possible that we have the wrong population in solitary. But, of course, so long as those in power decide who goes to prison, those in power will not go to prison.

   -Derek Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe

I think that most of us learn from an early age to view the world as it is presented to us and part of that means an implicit agreement about when to be outraged and when to be fearful. We’ve created whole belief systems and myths about this that we assume are designed to both punish criminals and protect ourselves. And yet, as Jensen points out in his book and buhdy noted a couple of days ago, the system is rigged from the get-go.

As an example, following the above quote, Jensen goes on to discuss the Union Carbine chemical explosion in Bhopal, India that killed eight thousand and injured two hundred thousand in 1984. The Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide at the time, Warren Anderson, has been charged with manslaughter in Bhopal, but the US has ignored requests for extradition. It seems as though he’s enjoying a pretty comfortable life in the Hamptons these days.

On the other end of the continuum, we might talk about something pretty close to home for me that I mentioned last week…my two friends who’s home was raided, had all of their money and possessions seized, and were hauled off to jail in handcuffs for growing and selling marijuana.

And we have the audacity to talk about a system of justice in this country?

But in my mind, its even more serious than that. Even if we could figure out a system of fairness and equality in finding the real criminals and bringing them to justice, what would that mean? Cases go to court systems where the best (and therefore most expensive) lawyers can either determine justice or tie up a case so long that it becomes almost meaningless. As an example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened in 1989. Litigation for damages was just completed in 2008, nineteen years later.

And finally, even if we could fix all of that, I think the consequences we come up with are more designed for retribution and revenge than they are for any kind of rehabilitation or restoration; all of which fuels recidivism and more people are hurt in the end.

I get a front row seat almost every day in seeing the makings of what we define as “criminals” in our country because of the work that I do. And I can say that, without a doubt – after over 30 years of experience – criminals are made, not born. They are made because we really don’t understand our responsibilities to each other and so we ignore all of the ways that human beings are hurt and damaged and then reach out in anger and retribution when we’ve had enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should rush in with hearts and flowers when people do evil and criminal things. I am a firm believer in accountability. But if I was “Queen of the Universe” (ha-ha), we’d go back to square one and re-think this whole process from top to bottom.


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  1. with me about what a REAL system of justice would look like in this country?

    Have at it…

    • Robyn on February 22, 2009 at 17:33

    …which is not based on fairness and equality will never produce justice.  It will rather serve to criminalize those who are unequal…perhaps not directly for being unequal, but in some way…in order to justify the unfairness and inequity.

  2. of the American population in jail is from the lower income strata?

    What of economic justice? Wonder what that looks like?

  3. the link to Jensen’s book wouldn’t work in the essay. So I’ll put it here: The Culture of Make Believe

    • robodd on February 22, 2009 at 18:48

    the justice system is relatively good.

    At least the decisions are made in public, you have some chance and when you are poor you at least have some defense afforded to you.  There is at least some requirement to have some explanation for their conduct.  There are jury trials.  Sure the quality of your justice is pretty dependent on the quality and expense of your lawyer, but still the process is largely open to the public.

    Whereas most other decisions made about our lives are largely made in secret with no intervention allowed by the people being effected by them.

  4. Until a Madoff or Addington or Cheney or Phil Gramm go to jail nothing will change.

    And it certainly appears that the only way that will happen is through some kind of popular uprising.

    But the popular uprising doesn’t happen because the populace simply does not believe that they have the power to change things.

    Mostly because the kind of people mentioned above NEVER pay consequences for their actions….and because of the “can’t fight City Hall” programming that has been so pervasively implanted.

    We won’t know what impact Obama will have on this for a while yet. And unfortunately (judging by the blogs) people are content to wait and see if the New Boss grants them change. The early signs don;t look good.

    What ALL of the change we need to see, and there is virtually NO aspect of society that doe NOT need major reform, comes down to is one phrase.

    Humans only truly change through crisis.

    The Ruling Class can realize that they need to induce a series of small crises with which to change the system…iow, having them voluntarily change things. If they don’t, they are making a BIG crisis …some form of revolution ….necessary.

    A smart Ruling Class would be making, as they did during the New Deal, relatively small (lol) change such as establishing Social Security (Health care is the new SS) to make society APPEAR fair to appease the peasantry.

    We don’t have a smart Ruling Class.

    As is evidenced by the fact that there is virtually NO aspect of society that doe NOT need major reform.

    We are in a destructive and unjust cycle. Something will have to break. And the longer we wait the more “violent” that break will be.

    In general….one cultural standard will have to change. As long as Greed rules our society and is its highest aspiration, we will continue a downward spiral.

  5. I haven’t a clue how to get from here to there, like most folks I guess.  Though if I had fiat, it would begin by recognizing that a system of 300 million people, half of whom utterly despise the values of the other half, is going to hit a much, much lower common denominator than one where there is some sense of social cohesion; and systems with no floor, where everyone is scared of ending up dead, basically, are not going to extend anything worth having to those who fall, by and large.  When the social contract is “run like hell and fuck you if you don’t make it” it is an almost superhuman task to empathize with the other, past a certain rudimentary sympathy, and “other” is a real low bar.

    Personally, and totally from left field, I think part of the solution is to make countries much smaller.  Like, maybe what a state is, now, roughly. And provide a bottom to the social contract, so that there is a real limit to how bad it can get, so that I am genuinely invested in my neighbor’s welfare, and they in mine.  But there is no real support for these things…they are nutty ideas, and the empire is run by Serious People, who are so firmly in the winning camp that the margins are visible only as a kind of generalized failure of individual good.

  6. What would a real system of justice look like to me?


    I don’t even know.

    King Solomon?  Wise judges, ethical lawyers, a populace who doesn’t think that being poor is equivalent to being bad.

    I read a conversation in a novel by Chaim Potok, “The Book of Light,” about a newly ordained Jewish rabbi who found himself serving as a chaplain in Korea, a mystic fellow, he imagined while taking his ordination examination some of the questions his teacher asked him, the teacher was considered one of the most brilliant minds of the century, all that.

    He remembered the question, “who speaks of evil as the separation of judgment from mercy?”  Well I’m paraphrasing.

    Now “mercy” is a strange concept in itself and is often interpreted many ways.  In this instance I’d view it as compassion, another word that can be interpreted many ways, heh.

    I think our society and culture has lost its way when it comes to our own understanding of what justice is.  And I don’t think that is just some accidental happenstance.

    But what would justice look like to me?  I just don’t know any more.  I can only see little pieces of it, and the anti-torture movement is to me, at the root of this, our culture making the determination of what is absolutely taboo when it comes to how we treat each other.

  7. I’m sorry in advance; I know I’m repeating myself.

    These “things” we’re talking about don’t exist.  Justice, peace, fairness, equality.  We may as well be talking about dragons and vampires.  Trying to describe a true (in the Aristotelian sense) system of Justice is like trying to make an accurate painting of God; impossible, futile, and only likely to illuminate truths about ourselves and not about Justice.

    What is needed is a recognition that human systems of justice are not about Justice, nor is it possible or even truly desirable that they should be.  Human justice is about human things; conflict resolution and interest serving.  I believe in the virtue of aspirational thinking and action, but this is a realm where we would all be far better off if we recognized and accepted that it belongs wholly to the sphere of the human rather than the divine.  

  8. abandoned the conversation folks, but it looks like ya’ll did just fine without me. I had company drop by just as things were getting going in here.

    And then there was the incident between the knife and my thumb just now. Surface only, but making it difficult to type. Be back later.

  9. My ideal of justice includes self responsibility of the people. Someone who is self-responsible will probably not commit crime in the first place. They will act in ways that are respectful of other people’s safety and property.  The ones who are truly guilty of crimes need to admit to it and take responsibility for their actions.    Like the Union Carbide guy or the Peanut Butter guy or the baseball players doing ‘roids and the politicians sleeping with prosititutes.  People who get caught hurting other people and know they are guilty should just admit it and save everyone the time and trouble of finding out the truth. Instead they lie and end up hurting more people or hire big-shot lawyers and try to pay for their innocence.  I think that many victims, or families of victims, would rather have the satisfaction of seeing the perpetrator feel guilt and remorse than getting monetary compensation or seeing the criminal put to death.  

    It would be some justice to me if Bush or Cheney could just admit how wrong they were (about frickin’ everything!) and acknowledge the huge price we are paying for their mistakes.

    Learning to be self-responsible is not easy. I have a such a hard time feeling my own guilt that I go out of my way to avoid situations where I could offend someone or make a mistake.  This is to the detriment of missing out on life or challenging myself.  Fear of failing is running away from my self-responsibility.  I’m working on it though!

  10. full of loving goodness but with the powers of the sci-fi movie Judge Dredd.  It would be somewhat like that Christian myth of “the rapture” only in reverse.  Take out the evil and the meek would inherit the earth.

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