April 17, 2013

Justice Is Bigger Than Vengeance

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine about the death penalty. We were both generally on the same side of the issue – that is, we were both against it – but she admitted it was difficult for her to imagine not wanting someone who killed one of her loved ones to suffer and pay the ultimate price. I argued that was why we don’t let crime victims set policy. Vengeance is a legitimate emotion, but it’s not a sound basis upon which to setup a criminal justice system that handles thousands of cases a year. She conceded that I had a valid point.

Thane Rosenbaum, a law prof (and novelist) at Fordham, disagrees. In fact, in an article last month for The Chronicle of Higher Education, he argued that not only should vengeance have a seat in the criminal policy bus, it should get to drive. Maybe he’s onto something, since he apparently has the magical ability to read the minds of others:
But the distinction between justice and vengeance is false. A call for justice is always a cry for revenge. . . . No matter what they say, victims aren’t choosing justice over vengeance; they are merely capitulating to a cultural taboo, knowing that the protocol in polite society is to repudiate revenge.
I’m always wary of someone who claims that something “always” anything and has the gall to tell others what they’re actually thinking (which is double odd since he’s setting himself up as their advocate). What does Rosenbaum say to families of murder victims who actively argue against the death penalty, even in cases involving their loved ones? Are they deluded? And if they are, doesn’t that argue for keeping victims at a greater distance from the criminal justice process?

On the basis of his sweeping generalization, Rosenbaum argues that “there is no justice unless victims feel avenged.” The problem is that Rosenbaum views vengeance as some physical thing that can be objectively measured and, therefore, we can easily determine when such avenging has been accomplished. He analogizes it to business transactions, but those do involve easily identifiable debts and repayments (more troublingly, he also analogizes to “ledgers we keep with . . . intimate partners to be balanced,” which is just sad).

Life, in Rosenbaum’s eyes, is like a movie in which revenge is not only an acceptable goal, but a laudable one:
We watch revenge films without embarrassment because on some primal level we know that just deserts are required in the moral universe, that those who commit crimes must be punished according to their blameworthiness, and that wrongs must ultimately be righted. It’s not our lust for violence that explains why we applaud payback, but our absolute need to live in a world that promotes fairness, law and order, and social peace.
Yes, because the revenge films of which he speaks, such as Braveheart and Gladiator, are held up as shining examples of the complexity of human relations. Except, of course they aren’t. We like revenge flicks because they present an easily identified wrong, committed by an obvious bad guy, who eventually gets his due. They’re a parody of real life, not accurate reflections.

That simplistic, black/white view of the universe, comes through even more clearly in a comment Rosenbaum made on NPR while discussing this issue:
We run away from this idea that the death penalty is something that we should abhor. But remember, when someone takes an eye, or in this case a life, they’ve made a decision to take a life. And there’s - one wonders why there’s - that there should be a discount on what payback should look like.
It’s certainly a simpler way to look at punishment to say, “you take a life, your forfeit your life,” but to do so would reject centuries of Western law that actually gives a shit about a defendant’s state of mind when he acts. Consider the following scenarios:
  • Killer shoots Victim in the head as part of a contract killing
  • Killer shoots Victim in the head in the heat of passion after finding Victim in bed with Killer’s wife
  • Killer shoots Victim in the head by accident, perhaps while “practicing” Wild West tactics
  • Killer shoots Victim in the head because he correctly thinks that Victim has a weapon and is going to kill him
  • Killer shoots Victim in the head because he incorrectly thinks that Victim has a weapon and is going to kill him
  • Killer runs over Victim with his car, while driving drunk
  • Killer runs over Victim with his car, while completely sober
  • Killer runs over Victim with his car, while swerving trying to avoid a small child running out into the road
I could go on all day. Most of us would think the proper punishment would have some relation to the culpability of the Killer and would vary from case to case. However, by Rosenbaum’s calculus, the punishment for the Killer in all those scenarios is the same – off with his head – presumably even in the true self-defense situation. After all, there’s a dead Victim and an identified Killer. The only way out of that is to somehow argue that a justified killing doesn’t lead to proper demands for vengeance, but I expect Rosenbaum will find plenty of loved ones of people killed in “self-defense” who think it was anything but.

Rosenbaum’s entire argument revolves around this idea of vengeance as something that can be located with mathematical certainty. For example, he complains about the impact of plea bargaining:
So we tolerate a legal system where over 95 percent of all cases are resolved with a negotiated plea—bargained down from what the wrongdoer rightfully deserved. That means that convicted criminals are rarely asked to truly repay their debt to society. Even worse, this math-phobic system tragically discounts the debt owed to the victim, who is grossly shortchanged.
I’m not sure this shows what Rosenbaum thinks it does, however. Firstly, that 95% figure covers all offenses, a large proportion of which have no victim at all. In fact, in my practice the case with an actual victim is vanishingly rare. So what percentage of cases with victims plead out? Secondly, why were those cases resolved by plea agreement? Were the original charges overly harsh given the evidence? Was it a matter of securing a conviction to a lesser offense or letting a guilty defendant walk free after an unsuccessful trial? Or does Rosenbaum think we just do away with the actual guilt phase of proceedings and focus entirely on what the victims want? Once again, a victim may want the perpetrator excessively punished, regardless of what evidence that prosecution could actually muster in court.

Rosenbaum’s attempt to drag us into some international consensus on this issue isn’t persuasive, either:
Other nations around the world allow for revenge—whether in the form of individual relief or under color of law.
Except that most western nations, the ones we think of our peers in the whole Enlightenment experiment, have almost completely rejected his easiest sale for vengeance, the death penalty. So if, in fact, lots of other nations don’t allow for revenge, which ones do?
And other nations, including Cambodia and Iran, better incorporate vengeance within their legal systems. (Iran’s and Cambodia’s human-rights records are a different matter entirely.)
Ah, all right, I see. Let us not look to European models, which protect a shared interest in human rights, but instead to nations with troubling human rights records, as if the two are not related.

In the end, Rosenbaum’s argument is like vengeance itself – unpredictable and hard to grasp fully. He writes repeatedly about the system’s failure to include victims more fully in the process, but doesn’t offer any ideas as to how they should be better integrated. Hell, he may be right – as I said, so few of the cases I deal with have victims in the first place. But giving ourselves over to base vengeance, and upending our entire criminal justice system in the process, doesn’t seem the right way to go about it.

Vengeance is a personal thing. What sates the desire for revenge in one person won’t do it in another, even when the wrongs committed against them were the same. Justice, by contrast, is a societal value, one that is important not because it gratifies particular individuals but because it keeps society functioning in the best possible way. We shouldn’t forget about vengeance when we think of justice, but neither should we let it be the prime mover.

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