In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.
Whoever appeals to the law against his fellow man is either a fool or a coward. Whoever cannot take care of himself without that law is both. For a wounded man shall say to his assailant, “If I Die, You are forgiven. If I Live, I will kill you.” Such is the Rule of Honor.
Welcome back to Exploring Morality. In this chapter we will be discussing justice and revenge.(sponsored by a series of discussions I had with AdLib) Where is the line and how far will we go to see justice done? This has actually been a question asked by man for centuries. We wish to punish the guilty for their actions but don’t want to appear as though we are simply retaliating. This is often a difficult task as many people commit acts so heinous it overrides our natural inclination to forgive. This is also natural. Anger is a powerful emotion and it can lead us down paths we would never travel in our right mind. So let’s begin in the distant past and look at how early civilizations dealt with concepts of justice and revenge.
Justice and revenge are divided by a thin line. It’s width varies from person to person. You see revenge, another sees justice. Who is correct? Most scholars feel it doesn’t matter. If society as a whole feels that justice has been done, then any arguments about revenge are moot. In the old days, however, revenge was justice.
The first recorded common law society was Hammurabi’s Babylonian Empire in the 18th century B.C.. Hammurabi was a decent leader. As the first true king of Babylon he committed to a string of public works programs that enriched his people and brought them a perception of safety. He is most known for his Code of Laws. Justice was a unique concept in ancient times. Hammurabi’s law has a “presumption of innocence” built into it, the earliest known of its kind. It allowed the accuser and the accused to present evidence and it often fell on the accuser to prove his side. Much the way burden falls on the state in our current legal system. Judges were given emphasis to make correct judgements. If they were found to be wrong and knew they were wrong, they will pay 12 times the fine they decided in court and be removed. So judges had an emphasis to be fair.
The two most well known codes of Hammurabi are “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth”. It’s very simple. You take out an eye, we take yours. You knock out someone’s teeth, we knock out yours. Extreme? Yes. Fair? Definitely. It is equal justice in the simplest terms. They weren’t exactly as nuanced as we are now. However, Hammurabi’s favorite punishment was immediate death. It applied to a long list of crimes from theft to battery. It still had weird caveats though. If you steal a man’s son, you will be put to death. If you strike a pregnant woman and cause her to lose her child, you pay the family ten shekels. ????
We would call this revenge. If someone kidnapped a child today, and the child was recovered alive, there would be no death penalty. Just a very lengthy prison term. Hammurabi’s empire didn’t have a lot of prisons and rehabilitation was handled by the priests. But Hammurabi’s harsh punishments were for a specific purpose. Babylon was constantly at war, as most ancient empires were. Hammurabi’s first year on the throne was spent finishing his father’s wars and becoming the unchallenged king of Babylon. There was no real king before him as powerful neighboring empires had held sway in the region. Hammurabi finally ended their influence. It came at a cost though. His civilian population was war weary and almost ready to tear the city apart.
Hammurabi brought strict, no bullshit justice to a people at each others throats. It’s hard to applaud the death penalty for what we view as minor crimes, but we must realize the times Hammurabi lived in. Revenge was a silly word. In fact, it didn’t even exist. But revenge does predate justice. Every justice system conceived is an answer to the question of revenge. You could say justice is revenge with a point. Punishment equal to the crime. Even with the advances of Hammurabi’ system – fair trials, presumption of innocence, compensation, – justice was a foreign concept in most of the old world. The most important thing was the blood feud.
Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
Blood feuds were the system many tribes in the ancient world used. Most notably Greek and Arab cultures. A blood feud, or vendetta, was a cycle of violence in which one death was paid for by another. If one tribe kills a member of another, that tribe owes a blood debt. In many societies the murderer was not killed, his relatives were. This may have been thought to be more damning. A murderer may likely have no cares for their own life but will probably still have a deep attachment to family. But, for most, whenever possible, the culprit was killed. We have a death penalty today. If you kill someone, the chances are good that you will be killed as well. A modern blood feud, but we don’t kill the family if we fail to capture the culprit. But we’ll get to capital punishment a little later.
In ancient Greece the blood feud was considered a proper part of society, condoned by the gods. In the Old testament blood feuds were handled a little differently. They felt life was precious so if you killed someone they were still gonna kill you. HOWEVER, there were sanctuary cities. If the killer fled to these cities, no harm could come to him. This was done to provide a “cooling off” period and give time for due process. Another term familiar to us today. The culprit would eventually be dealt with but no life could be taken in sanctuary cities. Outside the walls the blood feud was open for business. Kill and be killed. No coincidence that versions of Hammurabi’s law appear all over the Old Testament. The Jewish tribe’s ancestors were the ones who overthrew Babylon after Hammurabi’s rule and adopted much of his culture. It is a universal concept. The Samurai of Japan carried out vendettas in honor of their family, land, or lord. The state still arrested and put people to death but certain situations were left for the individual to handle. We are all familiar with the Italian Mafia who brought their own form of vendetta to America. A vendetta form of justice existed in the American west in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They all involved exchanging a life for a life. What the Old West called “frontier justice”.
Various religions all have their own thoughts on the blood feud. In western religion, Judaism and Islam adopted many tenants of the blood feud as it existed in their cultures long before they developed their religions. Though many Jewish rabbis and Islamic jurists believe murder or comparable crimes are the only ones worthy of revenge. Christianity actually started out condemning the blood feud. They condemned killing of any kind. But generations of persecution and murder kinda changed the tune of some sects. First it became o.k. to judge a person and sentence them to death. Then it became o.k. to go to war and kill for the state. Many sects changed “thou shalt not kill” to “thou shalt not murder”. I think it’s because many people still REALLY loved to stone people to death. Gotta give the people what they want.
Eastern religions find the whole concept silly. Buddhism is all about putting an end to attachment. Revenge is brought about by attachment. Revenge is inconceivable to a Buddhist. Hinduism has weird outlooks on revenge since death is meaningless to them. It’s all about karma. In Hinduism we all die and are reborn in cycles. Our station in life when reborn depends on our karma in the previous life. So death is not an end and is very rarely mourned. Concepts like revenge and justice are unnecessary. Karma will decide what is best for everyone. Weird but very enlightened in a way. If death isn’t an end, why fear it? If karma is punishment or reward, why should we bother? In punishing another you may incur bad karma and jeopardize your own rebirth.
Revenge is a dish best served cold.
~Ancient Klingon proverb
So let’s talk vigilantism. I often use Batman as an example in discussions like this because he is the personification of vengeance.(and I’m a giant nerd) Bruce Wayne had a tragic childhood. Around the age of ten his parents were gunned down right in front of him as they exited a theater. Batman’s origin story has been rewritten several times but it basically consists of his parent’s death leading him into vigilantism. He inherits his father’s mutli-billion company along with his family’s great wealth and uses it to become a costumed crime fighter. By day he is Bruce Wayne, Gotham socialite and reclusive mutli-billionaire. By night he is Batman, masked crime fighter. In the beginning his actions bring him into constant conflict with local police. An ordered society cannot suffer vigilantes lest the whole city become a powder keg of vengeance and betrayal. After this, Batman’s story greatly deviated from most vigilantes. The emergence of “super villains” meant Batman was now needed. he was tolerated and even accepted by certain members of the police force. He feels he is saving Gotham but many psychiatrists, who sportingly played along and analyzed the Batman character, note he is still locked in a struggle to avenge his murdered parents.
Even if he cleaned up the streets” the emptiness would remain. Perhaps he doesn’t kill in part because he needs the cycle to remain unbroken. He needs the constant conflict to keep him from degrading or accepting that he can’t save his parents. Vigilantes aren’t to be glorified though. We can understand them, maybe even respect them, but we can never condone what hey do. In 1851 citizens of San Fransisco were plagued by violent crime. The California Gold Rush was in full swing and brought many new people from all across the country to San Fran. The prospect of being rich created a cesspool of corruption and constant violence as seedy politicians looked to exploit drunk, surly prospectors. The outskirts of San Fransisco was a den of thieves waiting to pounce on travelers. About 700 San Fransisco natives came together to form the “Committee of Vigilance”. A lynch squad.
They went to task rounding up lawbreakers and hanging serious offenders. The crime rate in the area dropped dramatically. The committee disbanded and were hailed as heroes in the community. Overlooked was the fact that the “committee” basically blamed everything on Australian immigrants who were way down the list of suspects. Crime dropped because an army of hooded thugs patrolled the streets with no law backing them up, no authority to hold them in check. A similar incident occurred in Montana in 1863. 22 men were hanged for being “highwaymen”(thieves) including a local sheriff. None of the men were ever found guilty and no evidence could be presented. Later on, researchers determined that it was most likely the vigilante group that committed most of the crimes and then blamed the men they hanged. dead men can’t defend themselves.
1981, Skidmore, Missouri. Ken Mcelroy, known as the “town bully” was shot and killed outside a bar. Ken had been accused of many crimes ranging from rape and pedophilia to arson and cattle rustling. The problem as that most witnesses were reportedly intimidated by Mcelroy or associates before each trial. Prosecutors absolutely hated the man. The whole town did. When he wa shot, it could have been almost anyone. Just so happens that 46 people witnessed the shooting. Only one, Mcelroy’s wife, said she could identify the shooter. Charges were never brought against the alleged shooter. Justice had been done in the eyes of many. 1983, Bernhard Goetz opens fire on a New York subway train injuring 4 teenagers he thought were attempting to mug him. He had been mugged 2 years earlier by a set of teens and had vowed to get a gun license. New Yorkers called him a hero. The families of the teenagers called him a psychopath. One teen, who had been paralyzed, sued him for $43 million dollars and won. Goetz filed bankruptcy. Hero!
All these cases have a common theme, lack of evidence. This is hardcore vigilantism. Batman worked through the system to find people guilty in the eyes of the law. These people went on a power trip and killed whatever satisfied them. This moves past revenge to good ol’ fashioned vengeance. Vengeance needs no excuse, no cause to cling to. It is unleashed hate. Rome brought vengeance on the supporters of the Gauls by completely wiping them from the face of the Earth. This was not revenge. They had done them no great injustice, there was no higher purpose, real or not, at play here. Just a lesson in blind fury and reckless aggression. That is the calling card of the vigilante. Death and destruction with no purpose. It goes beyond the blood feud as well for you are not exchanging a life for a life. This is death for the sake of death. Vengeance is to revenge what rage is to anger. It is revenge taken a level too far. When Khwarezmian soldiers killed Genghis Khan’s merchant convoy and later beheaded his peace messengers, he did not respond in kind. He went way beyond and brought vengeance to the entire kingdom. Laid waste to most of the people and structures and erased their culture from history.
In the Middle Ages justice was flexible. Rich? You are effectively above the law as you probably own most of it. Poor? GOD help you when judgement comes. Torture was the punishment de jour. Incarceration was a rarity. In fact, prisons did not become a big deal til around the 19th century. The rich simply payed fines or restitution to wronged parties. Even for murder. If you couldn’t pay, you were brutally tortured and often times executed. Exile was also another popular punishment. The Medieval justice system involved a series of brutal beatings broken up by the occasional hanging. Did I say occasional? I meant constant. In the “New world” it was no different. The prison system didn’t arise til the mid 19th century and torture was the most used punishment. Unless you were rich of course. Then, as usual, you payed your way out of it. This was justice. Maybe not to us but we can’t, here today, call what they did anything less.
A crime was committed, a trial was assembled, a punishment was given. Unless you are rich. You know what? It is pretty much the same system we use today. The Magna Carta is an important document in the history of criminal justice. Though it applied mostly to rich landowners, it set precedents that would shape many laws to come involving, personal property, privacy, search and seizure, the court systems, and much more. It was an attempt to limit the power of the monarchy and give authority to Lords to rule by the law of their land. Rewritten many times throughout history, most of it’s laws were repealed by the 19th century. It still formed the basis of modern constitutional law in England and subsequently in America.
The 19th century was when the justice system we know today began to form. Prisons became widespread as incarceration became common disciplinary practice. Rehabilitation was an afterthought. Many argue it still is. In 1829 the first local police force was formed in England. Followed a few years later by forces in Boston and New York. People were not excited. Police forces in America got off to a bad start they are probably still recovering from. Corruption was rampant as many officers found their new found authority an intoxicant. Early laws were weighted so a simple police confession could send you away. Even if physical evidence might favor your case. Judges didn’t care as they saw a cut from local crime lords. In the early 20th century major reforms swept through much of the police forces in America.
Police forces became more professional as emphasis was placed on training and education as well as getting to know the local community. The police , for awhile, became welcome guests in neighborhoods and enjoyed a stunning rise in popularity. It is still a work in progress. The turmoil of the 60’s burned many of the bridges that had been built decades earlier. Police forces from California to Alabama were stained by accusations of rampant racism and bigotry in their ranks. Reports of officers gunning down unarmed minorities became a far too frequent occurrence. More reforms were put in place including an emphasis on diversity hiring and the formation of community watch programs. The changes were not a universal cure but found great success in many areas.
Our justice system today consists of two sides,(cue the Law & Order music) the police who apprehend criminals and the courts who try them. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty damn good. It combines all the best things of various law systems through out history. Right to a fair, speedy trial by your peers. Right to an attorney to represent you and the right to terminate his services if you find him inadequate. The right to face your accuser and the concept of bail. It is not without problems and controversies though. It is still run by humans and we are not perfect. The same petty bigotry that marked the 50’s and 60’s still exists today. Bribed juries and corrupt judges aren’t only in the movies. Money drives both sides as justice is now a contest. Prosecutors can’t accept losses and many have been brought down after being found to have rigged their own cases. Defense lawyers are no different, falling prey to the same forms of corruption.
Our prison system has become for profit with many hands at the till. Judges, lawyers, police,FBI, prison guards, DEA, and many other organizations owe their entire existence to our absurd incarceration rates and the money involved. This isn’t justice. Revenge neither. It’s just sad. America has more prisons and more prisoners per capita than any country on Earth. Felons become repeat offenders at a 60% rate and little effort is put into their rehabilitation. In some cultures,mostly tribal, prisons still do not exist. Punishment is slight. The focus is placed on rehabilitation and trying to bring them back into the tribe. Our policy for the last 30 years had basically been lock’em up and move on. We can always build more prisons. And we are. How good are we at prisons? The first functioning structure built in post war Iraq was a prison. A large prison. American justice for sale. Who paid for it? Why we did, stupid. You had to see that coming.
It is impossible to suffer without making someone pay for it; every complaint already contains revenge.
Now for the wholly opinion portion:
If there is no justice in our justice system, where do we turn? Today’s society seems more concerned with locking people away regardless of the crime. This seems more like vengeance than any form of justice. We can’t judge a system on individual cases but on it’s worth as a whole. I find far more injustice in our prison numbers than I do in the Casey Anthony verdict. She is perceived to have escaped justice but what about the millions who sought it and were denied? Every day an innocent person is jailed. Every year dozens of people are taken off death row after being found innocent. That means we have executed innocent people. That alone should be enough to end the death penalty but it isn’t. The death penalty is revenge. It is a continuation of the blood feud. A life for a life. State sanctioned barbarism. Justice is a tricky concept though in that it is very much just an abstract concept. It is not a natural thing or something ordained from above. It is a judgement call based on the laws and morals of the people proposing it.
It is only my opinion that the death penalty is revenge and not justice. The death penalty solves nothing but imprisonment seems to fail to solve anything as well. Does it just come down to the best we can do? Exile was revenge. Isn’t imprisonment a similar fate? That was part of the reasoning behind the first prisons built in France. Exile within the borders. Isn’t any punishment a form of revenge? And what society has the moral emphasis to carry any of this out? American culture celebrates excess, drug use, anti0heroes, and vigilantes while imprisoning people in record numbers for these same “offenses”. In the book Republic by Plato, the main character argues that justice is a trick forced on people by the powerful. Considering that the history of justice seems to greatly favor the rich and powerful, you could argue he was on to something. But he also thought demons lived in your head so fuck that guy.
So, in summary, justice and revenge are very much divided by a thin line. Throughout much of history they were the same thing. The line is most often decided by the laws and morals of the society. This can result in problems since morals are inherently subjective and laws are devised by the elite and the corrupt. It goes back to the “Social Contract”. The unwritten agreement we sign to stay in the community. Arbitrary laws and punishments are affixed to various crimes and we move on. The rich and powerful still avoid punishment on a regular basis. Steal a car and you’ll probably go away for awhile. Poison the Gulf of Mexico and ruin countless lives, you’ll probably pay a small fine. Lie in court, you’ll go to prison. Lie to the entire country and falsify documents leading us to war, you’ll get to retire fat and happy.
There is no justice in life. You’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise. All that exists is the best we can do. And that is justice in and of itself. To take the hits and not succumb to our base nature. To rule out revenge and personal gratification and instead seek proper compensation through the courts. Win or lose we try to be fair and we try to see justice done. That is a just society. Not one that dispenses exceptional justice. Those societies don’t exist. It’s the one that tries everyday to be a little better then it was the day before. But that’s just my opinion. I’m interested to hear yours.