Sunday, September 07, 2014
Peter Beinart has written a much discussed article at the Atlantic contending that, in response the Islamic State's theatrical beheadings, the administration is striving to manage a "Jacksonian" moment in U.S. politics when an insult to our honor sends us howling for revenge. In consequence, we get Veep Joe Biden posturing about chasing down the perps to the "gates of Hell." Very swashbuckling. And we have the right wing howling to impeach Obama for being insufficiently stupidly bellicose.
I don't think much of Beinart's historical typology. Sure, such intellectual edifices sometimes serve to simplify a moment, but no historian can take them seriously; national experience is much more idiosyncratic and granular than these mind games can capture.
But many of us do get swept up in demanding revenge -- not accountability, but raw "equivalent" barbarism -- when our metaphorical noses are rubbed in vicious crimes.
While working on the SAFE campaign to end death sentences in California [short story: 2012 initiative; we lost narrowly], I was forced to ponder why so many people cling to the idea that horrible, violent criminals should be executed for their deeds rather than safely locked away for life. And very gradually, partially by talking with relatives and friends of victims of crimes, I got it: what people want is only superficially revenge. What we really want is justice.
And the United States does not, for most people, offer a confidence that we live in a place and time which reliably delivers just outcomes.
Mostly, most of us get along with a minor unease. But we experience enough daily unjust irritants that we cannot be trusting. Why, we had one yesterday: we'd jumped through all the required hoops (and even had our checks cashed) to maintain health insurance while away from San Francisco, but suddenly we found we'd been canceled. Oh sure, we got the snafu fixed -- but this set off an inner cri de couer: "we've been wronged!"
And that sort of recurrent daily minor injustice is nothing on what happens to people like the African American residents of towns like Ferguson. Thank goodness the shooting of Michael Brown unleashed an explosion of protest. That's what should happen when justice is absent for years and lifetimes.
The easy American jump to demanding violent revenge is fed by the daily injustices of our lives. Our politicians know they must feed the beast -- demand an execution, bomb someone -- all to reduce the pressure.
This is not how I choose to live, but that is not easy to accomplish.